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Apple wins patent case on eve of results

Averts iPhone 4 import ban after Motorola Mobility loses case

Bloomberg  |  Washington 

Inc averted an order that could have hindered imports of the into the US after persuading an American trade agency to invalidate a patent owned by Inc's unit over a phone sensor. The verdict came on the eve of Apple's financial year second-quarter net income.

The US Trade Commission in Washington yesterday upheld a judge's findings that the patent is invalid, though for different reasons. The patent covers a sensor that prevents the phone from accidentally hanging up or activating an application when close to a person's face.

The decision marks the latest instance in which neither Cupertino, California-based nor has been able to strike a decisive blow against its competitor in a squabble that began more than two years ago. Each has claimed the other is infringing patents, and accused of breaching obligations to licence some of its most widely used technology on fair terms.

"This is not a surprise because the commission has heretofore not found a violation by in any case as to any claim in any patent," said Rodney Sweetland, a patent lawyer with Duane Morris in Washington who specialises in ITC cases. "The commission is particularly attentive to the details in cases involving Apple, which implicate such a popular product and such an important part of commerce."

Matt Kallman, a spokesman for Google, said the Mountain View, California-based company was disappointed and is "evaluating our options." Amy Bessette, a spokeswoman for Apple, said the company had no comment.

iPhone revenue
The iPhone, in all models, generated $78.7 billion in sales last financial year for Apple, about half of the company's revenue. The devices are assembled in China and imported into the US. Apple's newest model, the iPhone 5, has been the company's top seller since going on sale in September. Still, reduced-price older models like the have retained their popularity, Canaccord Genuity Inc said April 8.

is scheduled to report earnings later on Tuesday. The company is predicted by analysts to post its first profit decline since 2003, hurt by products with lower profit margins and slower iPhone-sales growth.

Seventeen analysts surveyed by Bloomberg have lowered their outlook for the company in the past month.

The dispute with predates its acquisition by last year. contends phones running on Google's Android operating system copy the look and features that make the iPhone unique. In addition to and Samsung Electronics Co, sued Taiwanese handset maker HTC Corp in a case that settled in November with royalty payments and a pledge that HTC wouldn't copy designs.

Smartphone market
At stake is a share of a US smartphone market estimated at $51 billion last year by Neil Shah, an analyst with Strategy Analytics. is the largest maker of smartphones in the US, with about 45 per cent of the devices sold in the fourth quarter, he said last month.

is appealing the loss of its own case against at the agency over touch screen technology, and both are challenging a decision by a judge in Chicago to toss infringement claims they filed against each other. A federal judge in Miami presiding over another dispute between the two called them "obstreperous and cantankerous" and said they were more interested in never-ending litigation as a business strategy than in resolving disputes.

paid $12.4 billion for in large part to get access to its trove of more than 17,000 patents and gain leverage against

Sensor patent
The sensor patent was all that was left of a case that also involved claims that infringed patents for third-generation wireless technology used throughout the industry. The ITC in August cleared of those allegations.

ITC Judge Thomas Pender in December said the sensor patent is invalid because it isn't different enough from earlier inventions, and said he didn't consider his decision to be a close call.

argued the sensor technology wouldn't have been obvious to engineers in 1999, when the patent application was filed, because there were few touch screen mobile devices so people were unlikely to realise it would be a problem. The company quoted the late co-founder of Apple, Steve Jobs, as saying the incorporation of a proximity sensor in the iPhone was a "breakthrough."

in turn contended the sensor is little different than those that prevented accidental dialling on keypads, and touch screens have been around for years. It also said the paraphrased Jobs comment, which came from his official biography, was not about the same technology as that covered by the patent.