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ITC: Motorola does not violate Apple patents

In an initial determination, an administrative law judge dealt a blow to Apple's legal offensive against the Android smartphone ecosystem.

The U.S. International Trade Commission ruled that Motorola's Droid smartphones do not violate three Apple patents, dealing a blow to Apple's legal offensive against the Android smartphone ecosystem.

The ruling is preliminary and needs to be approved by the ITC's full six-member commission. An Apple spokeswoman declined to comment. In a press release, general counsel Scott Offer declared Motorola "pleased" with the ITC's decision.

Apple originally lodged its ITC complaint against Motorola in October 2010, alongside two lawsuits. In its complaints, Apple alleges that Motorola's Droid, Droid 2, Droid X, and a handful of other smartphones and related software violated several of its patents. Apple's complaint followed one from Motorola that claimed Apple was violating 18 of its patents with its smartphones and other mobile devices.

This ITC case is part of a much wider offensive Apple is waging against Google's Android smartphone OS and the manufacturers who use it. Steve Jobs, Apple's late co-founder, told his biographer Walter Isaacson that he viewed Android as a "stolen product" and an illicit copycat of Apple's own iOS.

"I will spend my last dying breath if I need to, and I will spend every penny of Apple's $40 billion in the bank, to right this wrong," Jobs told his biographer. "I'm going to destroy Android, because it's a stolen product. I'm willing to go thermonuclear war on this."

Jobs' anger apparently inspired Apple's legal onslaught, in which it has taken on not just Motorola, but also Samsung and HTC--the three leading manufacturers of Android handsets. In a flurry of lawsuits, Apple has sought to bar the use of Android, claiming that it infringes Apple patents on "multitouch" functions and other technologies.

Apple scored a limited victory against HTC last month before the ITC, although its practical effect on the smartphone market may be negligible. Last year, Apple won preliminary injunctions against Samsung's Galaxy Tab tablet in Europe and Australia, although the Australian decision was later overturned and Samsung may have redesigned its way around the European ban.

Today's decision comes after a delay in the case. The ITC originally planned to issue an initial determination by November 30, 2011, with a final decision this March.

Technology companies in recent years have increasingly turned to the ITC to settle their disputes. Companies can pursue an ITC case in parallel with civil lawsuits, and the threat of an embargo on products typically forces companies to settle more quickly.

An Apple win could have resulted in an exclusion order that would bar Motorola from importing and selling hardware and software that infringe on Apple's patents. Both companies are embroiled in similar patent-related battles with various companies in complaints with the ITC, including Samsung, Microsoft, and Eastman Kodak.

Last year, Google announced plans to purchase Motorola for $12.5 billion, a deal that may help shield Android from lawsuits thanks to Motorola's patent portfolio.

Declan McCullagh contributed to this report.