updated 10:30 pm EDT, Wed July 4, 2012
Three Apple patents ruled invalid, HTC not infringing
A London court which has a reputation for being loathe to find companies guilty of infringement has handed HTC an unsurprising victory against Apple in declaring that the Taiwanese smartphone maker is not in violation of any of four patents Apple was asserting. HTC, which brought the case defensively hoping to get all four Apple patents declared invalid, got its way on three of the four but was cleared of any infringing charges.
The court found that Apple's "slide-to-unlock" feature was "obvious" and pointed to HTC-submitted prior art of a similar function on an earlier Swedish phone, the Neonode N1. On that phone, a padlock is shown on screen with the instructions "right sweep to unlock" (a video demonstrating this is seen below). Apple had maintained that HTC's "arc unlock" feature was too similar to its own, but both are fundamentally similar to the Neonode, which was introduced in 2005 just before the iPhone came out.
Prior art was also the undoing of another Apple patent, referred to as the "multilingual keyboard" patent. Two earlier examples of prior art (a bit of documentation to the GSM standard and a German cellphone) were cited in calling the patent "obvious." Had the patent been declared valid, HTC (and most other Android device makers) would have been guilty of infringing it, the court found.
Apple also lost out on a patent for multi-touch, described as a "touch event model" that detected when users were using more than one finger. The judge found that Apple's description qualified as a "computer program as such" and thus was not protected, as the EU doesn't recognize software patents. The court also noted that one of Apple's claims would have been rejected for obviousness if the patent had been upheld. HTC was found not to be infringing (and thus no Android device maker would have been found to be infringing).
The only silver lining for Apple was the validation of a patent regarding photo management, specifically a "photo gallery page-flipping" technique. While HTC (and by extension other companies) were ruled to have worked around it in a way that did not infringe, the court said the patent should be upheld as valid.
Though reported widely as a major victory for HTC, in fact the company had already worked around most of the claims previously, and a German court had already declared the slide-to-unlock patent invalid for the same reasons in a case against Samsung. The court battle was not brought on by Apple as has been the case in some other hearings, but was an attempt by HTC to strengthen its hand in ongoing battles with Apple and picked the venue for the battle. Patent-litigation analyst Florian Mueller has noted that the London court is known for avoiding rulings of infringement, finding violations in only about 15 percent of all the cases it hears.
The UK ruling is expected to have little impact in other ongoing cases, as the Neonode N1 was never released in the US for example and may be able to be contested there. It should have more influence in any further European courts on these matters, however Apple is expected to appeal. The "slide-to-unlock" patent validation is expected to be an uphill battle for Apple, however, as it was already declared invalid once before, late last year in Germany.
Apple does still have a victory over HTC with the International Trade Commission, which ruled in December that HTC copied Apple's "data tapping" patent (that allows, for example, a phone number in a text to be tapped on to call that number using the phone program). The company was unsuccessful, however, in an attempt to get an emergency ban of some 28 new HTC smartphones from being imported into the US over that patent. The ITC dispute is still ongoing an unlikely to be affected by the UK court ruling.
Apple has also sued HTC in the US last Thursday alleging that the company is abusing standards-essential patents and FRAND licensing agreements. The complaint is similar to charges Apple has brought against Samsung and Motorola (and thus by proxy, Google), and the charge has enjoyed wide support from other players in the technology and electronics sector.
Video demo of Neonode N1's "slide-to-unlock" prior art (at 4:00 mark)