Apple Sues HTC for Infringing 20 Patents: First Battle of the Apple-Google Proxy War?

It’s on!  A few hours ago, Apple launched two lawsuits against Taiwanese smartphone maker HTC, alleging infringement on 20 Apple patents ranging from the early 90s to just a few weeks ago.  The suits, filed with both the U.S. District Court and the International Trade Commission, focus mostly on software patents– an area of some controversy.  You can see details of the patents at issue here— Apple has apparently filed over 700 pages of exhibits to the District Court, and based on the complexity of some of these patents, this might well take years to resolve.

HTC is the most prominent manufacturer of phones powered by Google’s Android OS.  Is this the opening act of an Apple proxy war against Google?  There certainly are some signs of it.  More info after the break.

Update: Google just issued a short statement on the case:

“We are not a party to this lawsuit. However, we stand behind our Android operating system and the partners who have helped us to develop it.”


Apple CEO Steve Jobs said:

“We can sit by and watch competitors steal our patented inventions, or we can do something about it. We’ve decided to do something about it,” said Steve Jobs, Apple’s CEO. “We think competition is healthy, but competitors should create their own original technology, not steal ours.”

Apple actually had its publicity machine rolling before HTC was even served notice of the suit.  HTC first learned of the suit through press coverage of the Apple press release, but soon afterwards released a statement:

HTC is a mobile technology innovator and patent holder that has been very focused over the past 13 years on creating many of the most innovative smartphones. HTC Corporation values U.S. and international patent rights and will work with in the U.S. Judicial System to protect its own innovations and rights.

What’s more interesting is that almost all of the allegedly infringing products are HTC phones powered by Google’s mobile operating system, Android.  Only one patent at issue, relating to HTC’s use of digital signal processing chips, concerns the firm’s Windows Mobile-powered phones.  Many of the patents deal with core OS technologies present in Android, and since that’s Google’s realm, not HTC’s, we fully expect Google to back up HTC here.

Why did Google sue HTC and not other Android phone manufacturers like Motorola?

Well, the world of patents works in an interesting way– Motorola has thousands of patents in a wide-ranging area, and if Apple sued Motorola, it could easily be countersued for any number of Motorola patents that Apple products like the iPhone may infringe on.  Generally lawsuits between companies with deep patent pockets happen when one party’s interested in a broad cross-licensing deal (which is generally part of the settlement).  This also applies for companies like Palm, which has dozens of highly important patents in the smartphone realm (which the iPhone likely infringes on) and could easily defend itself from Apple, and of course Microsoft, which also has a huge collection of patents.

This logic allows large tech companies to infringe on each other’s patents, knowing that if any conflict were to arise, they’d have a reasonable shot at inflicting damage on the party bringing the suit.  HTC, however, is a much younger company and has far fewer patents than Apple, Motorola, and others.  As a result, it has no real bargaining chips to use in a settlement.

What this means is that HTC itself may be in a somewhat weak position to defend itself, and as a result, it will likely turn to Google, which is responsible for most of the alleged infringement.  Despite HTC’s position as the premier manufacturer of Android-powered phones, Apple’s real interest is likely in targeting Google, with which its relations have slowly deteriorated.  Suing HTC seems like an interesting way to attack Google without directly suing it– it’s a proxy war.

Let’s see how this turns out– we’ll be posting whatever updates we come across.

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