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German court dismisses latest Qualcomm patent suit against Apple

But a separate ban on iPhones in Germany still stands.

iphone-7-plus-1

Apple and Qualcomm are battling over patents worldwide. 

Angela Lang/CNET

A German court on Tuesday dismissed Qualcomm's latest patent suit against Apple, calling the claims "unfounded."

Separately, the US Patent and Trademark Office's Patent Trial and Appeal Board on Tuesday said it will review three Qualcomm patents at issue in its International Trade Commission cases against Apple. 

The German case is related to something called "bulk tension" or voltage in iPhones. The ruling from a regional court in Mannheim, translated from German, said Apple didn't infringe Qualcomm's patents because voltage in smartphones isn't constant. It dismissed the claim but said Qualcomm could appeal the ruling, something the company said it plans to do. 

Tuesday's Mannheim ruling deals a blow to Qualcomm, which has largely been successful in cases against Apple. Last month, a court in Munich found that Apple infringed Qualcomm's technology for power savings in smartphones and ruled that the iPhone maker must halt sales of the device in Germany. And earlier that month, a Chinese court ordered four of Apple's Chinese subsidiaries to stop importing or selling iPhones because of patent infringement. 

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Apple said in a statement that it's happy with the German court decision. "We regret Qualcomm's use of the court to divert attention from their illegal behavior that is the subject of multiple lawsuits and proceedings around the world," the statement says.

Qualcomm General Counsel Don Rosenberg, in a statement about the German ruling, noted Qualcomm's recent victories in Chinese, German and US courts. 

"Apple has a history of infringing our patents," he said. "The Mannheim court interpreted one aspect of our patent very narrowly, saying that because a voltage inside a part of an iPhone wasn't constant the patent wasn't infringed. We strongly disagree and will appeal."

Patent battle

Apple and Qualcomm have been fighting over patents since January 2017, when Apple filed suit against Qualcomm for roughly $1 billion, saying the company didn't offer fair licensing terms for its technology. Apple wants to pay less to use Qualcomm technology in its devices. Qualcomm responded by suing Apple for patent infringement and by seeking a ban on iPhone sales. The company maintains that no modern handset, including the iPhone, would've been possible without its cellular technologies.

At the same time it's battling with Apple, Qualcomm is facing other suits by governments around the globe, including the US. 

This month, Qualcomm and the US Federal Trade Commission are fighting in a San Jose, California, court over whether Qualcomm has a monopoly on modem chips and harmed competition by trying to maintain its power. The FTC, aided by Apple and modem-chip rival Intel, filed suit only days before Apple's suit in early 2017. The trial has revealed the inner workings of tech's most important business, smartphones, showing how suppliers wrestle for dominance and profits.

Apple executives, including operations chief Jeff Williams, have taken the witness stand for the FTC, to argue that Qualcomm hurt competition and ultimately caused higher prices for phones. 

The FTC will rest its case Tuesday, and Qualcomm will begin offering its defense. 

Patent review

Meanwhile, the USPTO on Tuesday said it will start 10 inter partes reviews (IPR) on three Qualcomm patents. Such a review can result in the patents being invalidated. 

The review requests for the three patents came from Apple and Intel. Patent No. 7,693,002 patent is for "dynamic word like drivers and decoders for memory arrays," something that can lower the complexity and power consumption of devices. Patent No. 9,608,675 relates to techniques for generating a power supply voltage for a circuit such as an amplifier. And patent No. 9,535,490 is for "power saving techniques in computing devices" helps reduce the electricity consumption by phones. It's the key patent asserted by Qualcomm in a suit against Apple.

"Institution of an inter partes review is authorized by statute when 'the information presented in the petition ... and any response ... shows that there is a reasonable likelihood that the petitioner would prevail with respect to at least [one[ of the claims challenged in the petition,'" the court filing said. The USPTO said that upon considering the petitions, there's "a reasonable likelihood" that certain claims of the patents aren't valid, and it plans to review the patents. 

Over a year ago, Qualcomm asked the ITC to ban the import and sale of certain iPhones that use Intel's modem. Those would've included the iPhone X88 Plus7 and 7 Plus that run on AT&T and T-Mobile. The phones that run on networks from Verizon and Sprint use Qualcomm's modem and wouldn't be included in the ban. 

Qualcomm initially asserted 88 claims from six patents in that case. But the ITC in September upheld only one claim from one patent, '490. That's one that's being reexamined by the USPTO.

About 64 percent of the time following an IPR review, all patent claims are invalidated, according to a trial statistics report by the USPTO. Another 17 percent of the time, some claims are invalidated. 

The stats don't bode well for Qualcomm, which has been using the '490 patent as its key claim against Apple in the US. 

Qualcomm didn't immediately have a comment about the review. 

Here's the list of patents and claims being examined:

9,535,490 patent

  • IPR2018-1265 – claim 31 
  • IPR2018-1293 -  claims 1-6 and 8
  • IPR2018-1295 – claims 16, 17 and 22-24

9,608,675 patent 

  • IPR2018-1326 - claims 1-6 and 18-22
  • IPR2018-1327 - claims 7-15, 17, 23-25, 27 and 33
  • IPR2018-1328 - claims 1-3, 5, 7-15, 17-21, 23-25, and 27
  • IPR2018-1329 - claims 28-30
  • IPR2018-1330 - claims 28-30
  • IPR2018-1340 - claims 31 and 32

7,693,002 patent

  • IPR2018-01249 - claims 1-28 and 31-37

Originally published at 9:38 a.m. PT
Updated at 11:57 a.m. PT with information about USPTO patent review. 
Updated at 1:39 p.m. PT with information about additioanal USPTO reviews.

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