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A brief history of Apple's mobile-tech patent battles

With Apple nabbing a critical patent on touch-screen technology today, it's a good time to take a look at where Apple stands in legal battles over mobile technologies with companies large and small.


Apple's winning of a key touch-screen patent this morning could give the company some of its biggest ammo yet when it comes to both fending off and going after technology rivals in the courtroom.

Apple is no stranger to legal battles, but the company is a relative newcomer to the mobile-phone business, and has extended its reach into that space with mobile devices like the iPad. Apple's success has made it an increasingly larger target, and a player that needs to defend its turf. Patents make up a huge part of that.

Now's as good a time as any to take a quick look at some of Apple's mobile-related patent squabbles over the past several years with companies large and small.

EMG Technology vs. Apple (November 2008)
EMG sued Apple in 2008 for infringing on a U.S. patent it held covering moving around a wireless device screen, as well as zooming. EMG says that applies specifically to Apple's iOS devices, since it's a part of navigating Web pages, and applications. The suit originally targeted Apple's iTunes Store, iPhone, iPod Touch and Apple TV, with EMG later adding Apple's iPad once it was released.

Outcome: To be determined. The trial date is set for September 12, 2011.

Nokia vs. Apple(October 2009)
In one of the biggest back and forth battles on the list, Nokia struck first, accusing Apple of infringing on 10 of its patents related to wireless devices, and saying that Apple refused to license them. Nokia's claim specifically targeted technologies allowing devices to connect to GSM, 3G, and Wi-Fi networks. Apple countersued two months later, claiming that Nokia was infringing on 13 of its own patents.

Nokia followed up by filing a complaint with the U.S. International Trade Commission, saying that Apple was infringing on seven of its patents. Apple then accused Nokia of infringing on 9 of its patents in the U.K.

Outcome: In March, an ITC judge ruled that Apple was not in violation of five of Nokia's patents. Last week the two companies reached a deal, with Apple agreeing to pay Nokia a licensing fee for its patents. As part of the deal, all patent litigation between the two companies is settled.

Eastman Kodak vs. Apple (January 2010)
Eastman Kodak filed a complaintagainst both Apple and Research In Motion in January 2010 with the U.S. International Trade Commission, saying that the companies were infringing on a digital-imaging patent it owned. Kodak sought to get phones from the two barred from import in the U.S. Kodak also filed two lawsuits against Apple in the U.S., one of which was specifically aimed at image preview technology in mobile devices.

Three months after Kodak's lawsuits and ITC complaint, Apple countersued, saying the company was infringing on two of its own patents.

Outcome: A January decision by the ITC said that Apple and RIM were not violating Kodak's patent. Four months later, an ITC administrative judge said Kodak did not infringe on Apple's patents. A full committee from the ITC will decide whether to uphold or reject that decision on September 19, 2011. As for the civil lawsuits between the three companies, all are ongoing.

Elan Microelectronics vs. Apple (March 2010)
Elan, a Taiwanese chipmaker, sued Apple in March 2010 for violating a patent it owned for "touch-sensitive input devices with the ability to detect the simultaneous presence of two or more fingers." In other words, multi-touch, a characteristic of Apple's iOS devices since the original iPhone, and readily available in the gadget maker's notebook computers too. Additionally, the company sought to get Apple's products barred from import in the U.S. through a section 337 order from the U.S. International Trade Commission.

Outcome: The ITC found Apple not to be in violation of patent infringement in late April, a decision Elan seeks to get overturned. That review is set to be completed by August 29, 2011. The lawsuit between the two companies in the Northern District of California is set to go to trial in February of next year.

Apple vs. HTC (March 2010)
Apple took aim at HTC in early March 2010, saying HTC was infringing on 20 of its patents relating to the iPhone's user interface, hardware, and "underlying architecture." A press release by Apple announcing the legal action had Apple CEO Steve Jobs referring to competing products as theft. Apple added an extra patent to the suit three months later.

Two months after Apple's suit, HTC fired backwith one of its own, accusing Apple of infringing on five of its patents related to mobile technology. That includes patents for hardware and software.

Alongside the suit, Apple filed a complaint with the ITC, seeking to bar HTC devices--as well as some from Nokia--from entering the U.S.

Outcome: In late April of this year, an ITC staff member said HTC and Nokia shouldn't be found liable of infringing on Apple's patents, but that's not the committee-approved decision from the ITC's administrative law judge, which has yet to be decided. The court cases are ongoing.

Motorola vs. Apple (October 2010)
Motorola Mobility went after Apple in October with an ITC complaint alleging that the iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch, and Apple's Mac computers infringed on 18 of the company's patents. Specifically targeted were wireless communication technologies like 3G, GPRS, 802.11, and antenna design. Similar to other ITC complaints, Motorola sought to bar Apple products from import into the U.S., and said Apple refused to license the technology.

Apple responded by filing two lawsuits against Motorola. In those, Apple said Motorola's mobile phones were infringing on its patents, specifically touch-screen technologies and user interfaces. Apple broadened that by amending one of its suits to include 12 additional patents.

Outcome: In November the ITC announced that it would be investigating complaints from both sides. The related civil suits are ongoing.

Apple vs. Samsung (April 2011) Apple sued Samsung in April, alleging that Samsung had copied its mobile devices both in terms of user interface and design features. Apple also alleged that the Samsung devices in question infringed on Apple's patents, and resulted in Samsung engaging in unfair competition. Samsung fired back by launching a wave of patent infringement lawsuits targeting Apple's products in multiple countries.

In an interesting twist, Samsung's legal team last month asked Apple to hand over next-generation versions of the iPhone and iPad to make sure its own future devices will not be subjected to the same infringement claims the company currently faces as part of Apple's original lawsuit.

The case continues to generate intense interest from tech onlookers. While the two companies compete, Apple and Samsung have historically been close business partners, with Apple making use of a number of Samsung components across the range of its devices. Nonetheless, that relationship has not kept Samsung and its telecommunications group from being targeted.

Outcome: To be determined. The most recent movement in this case was the judge recently denying Samsung's request to see unreleased versions of Apple's products.

See also: Apple patent and trademark skirmishes through the years