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HTC dealt a setback in Apple patent battle

International Trade Commission issues preliminary ruling saying that Apple didn't infringe on four of HTC's patents. A final ruling is expected in February.

Apple says phones such as the HTC Amaze infringe on its patents. HTC has countersued with its own claims of patent violation by Apple.

Apple didn't infringe on four of HTC's patents, according to an initial ruling by the U.S. International Trade Commission's administrative law judge.

The administrative law judge ruling, which is essentially a recommendation to the ITC's judges, found "no violation" by Apple, Reuters reported. A final ruling by the ITC is expected in February.

The ruling is just one component of an increasingly complex set of complaints and lawsuits between Apple and HTC filed in multiple courts and employing several different patents. The four HTC patents in this case, for instance, don't include an amended complaint that uses patents HTC acquired from Google. As a result, even a full rejection of these patents from HTC wouldn't spell an end to the litigation.

"This is only one step of many in these legal proceedings.," HTC General Counsel Grace Lei said in a statement e-mailed to CNET today. "We are confident we have a strong case for the ITC appeals process and are fully prepared to protect our intellectual property."

Apple wasn't immediately available for comment.

HTC's complaint was a response to Apple's own volley of lawsuits alleging the Taiwanese smartphone manufacturer had violated several technologies already used in the iPhone. HTC filed the complaint last year in the ITC, seeking a ban on the importation of iPhones, iPods, and iPad tablets. The initial complaint, however, used a weak set of patents, according to some legal experts.

"I didn't take it seriously from the day it was filed," said Florian Mueller, a legal consultant on patents. "Even if they were successfully enforced, I doubt they would pose a serious threat to Apple."

Apple has gone on the offensive against the various Android manufacturers, hitting even longtime partners such as Samsung Electronics with lawsuits and bans in an effort to halt the growing momentum of Google's mobile platform. While the iPhone remains the top-selling smartphone--with the iPhone 4S selling 4 million units over this past weekend--the widespread nature of Android has fueled Google's market share gains.

Technology companies have increasingly used the ITC to settle their differences over the past few years. The process is quicker than a traditional district court, and holds the threat of a ban on the importation of devices or products. No ban has even been enforced on a technology company in the U.S.; the companies have always settled beforehand.

HTC was the first company hit with a lawsuit by Apple. The company is seen as the Android supporter with the weakest patent position, requiring recent assistance from Google. The company also acquired S3 Graphics, which owns patents that Apple may have violated.