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Preliminary ruling finds that HTC infringes two Apple patents, but it's not over yet

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Some semi-big news in the HTC / Apple patent fight today: an ITC administrative law judge has ruled that HTC devices infringe two of the 10 patents Apple asserted back in March of 2010. That's a notable upswing in the case for Apple, which only last month was told the ITC staff didn't think any of its patent claims were valid, and it's bound to put more pressure on HTC to either pay up or use different technologies in the future. And... that's about it. Contrary to what you may have read elsewhere, this ruling isn't final, and Apple's victory isn't terribly meaningful in the long term. The decision is still set to be reviewed by the full six-member ITC panel, and it's only then we'll find out whether HTC will have to stop importing and / or selling infringing products. That's quite a ways off from now.

As for the patents themselves, they appear to describe fairly deep system-level technologies, but it's hard to know exactly which elements of HTC's products the judge found infringing -- whether it's an Android problem or an HTC problem, as it were. The first patent, #5,946,647, describes a system of data detectors that can parse data, recognize known structures, and take action upon them. The second, #6,343,263, is a super-wonky technical patent that describes a modular system that enables different types of data to be processed in real time. It's a pretty big deal if these patents are infringed by Android itself and not by something specific to HTC devices, but we're still waiting for the ITC to release the actual order before we'll know the answer to that question. Apple's case against Motorola also includes these two patents, so there's a chance this could affect a large swath of the Android ecosystem -- although for its part, Google says it's "pleased the ITC ruled against all of Apple's operating system claims," so take that however you like.

HTC's statement in response to the ruling is also somewhat interesting -- you can see the full statement at the end of this post, but check out this line:

As a leading smartphone innovator for more than a decade, we develop and acquire technology in many areas and strongly believe we have alternative solutions in place for the issues raised by Apple.

(Emphasis mine.) That's the first time HTC's ever acknowledged that it might have to design around any of Apple's patents if it suffers losses in litigation, and it raises a number of questions about how deeply the company is willing to alter Android if it doesn't prevail on appeal. That's the real story here, if you ask me: Apple's scored a minor tactical win on the way to the last battle, but HTC seems to be saying it's prepared to lose the war entirely -- and potentially create a new variant of Android in the process. I've asked HTC to clarify this line, and I'll let you know if I hear back.

In all, the big takeaways are that Apple's scored a needed victory on the way to winning this particular ITC case outright, but nothing's settled yet -- and HTC appears to be be prepared both to continue defending itself and for the worst-case scenario. And remember: Apple's also asserting 16 additional patents against HTC in a separate ITC case along with a pair of pending federal lawsuits from each side, so this whole conflict isn't over by a long shot. We'd bet there are a lot more twists and turns to come.

HTC Statement:

This is only one step of many in these legal proceedings. The ITC’s Staff Attorney independently studied the facts and argued at trial that HTC does not violate any Apple patents. Apple filed suit on 10 of its patents against HTC, but based on the judge’s initial decision today only prevailed on 2 of those patents.  HTC will vigorously fight these 2 remaining patents through an appeal before the ITC Commissioners who make the final decision.

We are highly confident we have a strong case for the ITC appeals process and are fully prepared to defend ourselves using all means possible.  As a leading smartphone innovator for more than a decade, we develop and acquire technology in many areas and strongly believe we have alternative solutions in place for the issues raised by Apple. We look forward to resolving this case, so we can continue creating the most innovative mobile experiences for consumers.