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ITC gives Motorola preliminary win in Apple patent dispute

by Phil Hornshaw

Score one for Motorola and against Apple in one of the iPhone maker’s many patent infringement suits, after the U.S. International Trade Commission issued a preliminary ruling stating that Motorola wasn’t infringing Apple’s patents.

The ruling came from an administrative law judge, as Ars Technica reports, and was based on three smartphone patents that Apple accused Motorola of having violated. Apple has lawsuits all over the world against multiple smartphone and tablet manufacturers. It has been in the middle of a protracted patent fight with Samsung over similar allegations, stating that Samsung has copied the look and feel of Apple’s device designs. But the early ruling could be a sign of the end for Apple’s suit against Motorola.

Apple and Motorola have been fighting this particular patent battle since back in 2010, in both federal court and the ITC. Motorola started the war by alleging that Apple had violated several of its smartphone patents covering things like antenna design, 3G technology and device synchronization, and Apple responded with a countersuit of its own.

Bringing patent lawsuits to the ITC is an effective workaround to taking them to federal court for many electronics makers. The ITC oversees imports of devices by foreign companies and from foreign distributors. It’s supposed to protect American companies from having their patents infringed by foreign businesses and then sold in the U.S. That means the ITC can ban the imports of devices into the U.S., effectively halting their sale here.

The ruling isn’t a final nail in the coffin of Apple’s suit against Motorola. There’s still a ruling by the six-judge ITC panel, which has the final say on import matters, and there’s a chance it could be different than that of the administrative law judge. But Motorola was pretty quick to send out a press release declaring victory, and it has a fair reason to be pleased. From Ars’ story:

“We are pleased with [Friday's] favorable outcome for Motorola Mobility,” Motorola Mobility general counsel Scott Offer said in a statement. “Motorola Mobility has worked hard over the years to develop technology and build an industry-leading intellectual property portfolio. We are proud to leverage this broad and deep portfolio to create differentiated innovations that enhance the user experience.”

Apple is basically in an all-out patent war with Google’s Android platform right now, and a loss against Motorola would be a setback. But it’s not the only side of the story: Apple did recently win an ITC victory against another Android device maker, HTC. And there’s still all that Samsung drama that needs sorting through, taking place all over the world. This battle’s far from over.