ITC To Investigate Apple Based On HTC’s Google-Fueled Patent Complaint

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The battle between Apple and HTC (and Android in general) is getting fiercer.

The United States International Trade Commission has just announced that it’s instituting an investigation into Apple, based on a complaint that HTC brought against it earlier this month. Apple and HTC have been battling over patent infringement since Apple first filed suit in March 2010 — and up until recently HTC has been playing defense. Now it looks like it may be Apple’s turn.

To be clear, the ITC announcement says that the merits of the case have not yet been established. But if the ITC does eventually find that Apple has infringed on HTC’s patents, it could impact many of Apple’s products — the investigation spans “computers, tablet computers, and smartphones”.

Of note: some of the patents involved in HTC’s complaint were actually given to the smart phone manufacturer by Google over the summer. Neither Apple nor Google have directly sued each other over iOS and Android, but Google has openly stated that it would back its Android partners, and it made good on that promise.

The ITC is important, as it is capable of blocking imports of infringing devices into the United States. That said, the process involved is usually quite lengthy.

Here’s a basic description of the patents involved in the case, based on a report in BusinessWeek earlier this month:

The patents in the ITC case relate to an interface that lets the user add identifiers such as .com or .org; an interface that enlarges characters being typed; a way to display information on mobile devices; and status bars that let a user check phone calls, text messages or calendar events.

Here’s the announcement that was posted on the ITC’s website:

The U.S. International Trade Commission (USITC) has voted to institute an investigation of certain electronic devices with communication capabilities, components thereof, and related software. The products at issue in this investigation are computers, tablet computers, and smartphones.

The investigation is based on a complaint filed by HTC Corporation of Taiwan on August 16, 2011 and amended on September 7, 2011. Supplements were filed on September 2 and 19, 2011. The amended complaint alleges violations of section 337 of the Tariff Act of 1930 in the importation into the United States and sale of certain electronic devices with communication capabilities, components thereof, and related software that infringe patents asserted by HTC. The complainant requests that the USITC issue an exclusion order and a cease and desist order.

The USITC has identified Apple, Inc. a/k/a Apple Computer, Inc. of Cupertino, CA, as the respondent in this investigation.

By instituting this investigation (337-TA-808), the USITC has not yet made any decision on the merits of the case. The USITC’s Acting Chief Administrative Law Judge will assign the case to one of the USITC’s four administrative law judges (ALJ), who will schedule and hold an evidentiary hearing. The ALJ will make an initial determination as to whether there is a violation of section 337; that initial determination is subject to review by the Commission.

The USITC will make a final determination in the investigation at the earliest practicable time. Within 45 days after institution of the investigation, the USITC will set a target date for completing the investigation. USITC remedial orders in section 337 cases are effective when issued and become final 60 days after issuance unless disapproved for policy reasons by the U.S. Trade Representative within that 60-day period.

Update: Here’s a statement from HTC — we’ve reached out to Apple to see if they have one as well.

“HTC will continue to protect its patented inventions against infringement from Apple until such infringement stops. We believe that we have an obligation to protect our business, our industry partners and our customers, who love using our products.”

Note: my colleague MG Siegler made the image above when the legal battle for these companies first got started.