Nothing permanent about Apple's ban on Motorola

Apple scores a key victory against Motorola in Germany. But history tells us the win will be short-lived as the back-and-forth battle continues.

Will Motorola Mobility's smartphones get shut out of the German market? Probably not.

But that is the latest breathless headline flying around the Interwebs. A German court ruled that Motorola's smartphones infringed on Apple's slide-to-unlock technology, or the swipe that your finger makes on your phone to get it out of its lock screen. As a result, the court has placed in injunction, or ban, on Motorola smartphones.

Only the ban may not stick. Motorola will certainly appeal the ruling, which could hold up the ultimate decision for another few months. Or it could work on a technical fix that would get around the patent.

Apple's iPhone 4S and Motorola's Droid Bionic.
Apple's iPhone 4S and Motorola's Droid Bionic, fighting both in the market and in the courtroom. Apple, Motorola

It's just the latest in the topsy-turvy world that is patent litigation. Major legal victories one day are relegated to minor footnotes the next. So far, companies such as Apple, Motorola, and Samsung Electronics have yet to get a ruling that really sticks.

Earlier this month, Apple was seemingly doomed to pull its iPhones from the German market thanks to an injunction that was quickly slapped on the company's products . But within the day, Apple was able to appeal the ruling and get the injunction halted. Apple products were back in its online stores in Germany later that day.

Even when Apple scored a victory against HTC in the U.S. International Trade Commission, it was deemed a limited one. HTC was found to have infringed on one of 10 patents. The company also has a few months to work on a technical workaround, which means its phones stay on the market.

Motorola could see a similar halt to its ban if it successfully appeals. It's still unclear, however, whether Motorola will be successful.

"The likelihood is hard to predict, but the hurdle is very significant," said Florian Mueller, who runs the legal blog Foss Patents. "They will depend on technical arguments regarding infringement and validity."

Or, like HTC, Motorola could work on a workaround to the patent. The slide-to-unlock function isn't key to how the phone works and could be removed quickly.

Mueller noted that the German court ruling didn't include the Xoom tablet, which unlocks when you pull the lock icon out of a circle. Apple is likely to go after that patent during any appeals process, he said. Still, the circle unlock function could easily replace the current slide option.

What this means is the legal battles are going to continue. The whole point of these legal exercises is to get a ban that's so damaging to a business that it forces companies to the bargaining table to hammer out a licensing agreement.

If the current wave of rulings and appeals are any indication, the companies are a long way from any kind of compromise.

 

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