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Tuesday, January 26, 2010, 11:05 am PT (02:05 pm ET)

ITC formally investigates Apple over Nokia patent complaints

In what has been viewed as an early win for Nokia, the U.S. International Trade Commission has begun to probe Apple in response to a complaint from the Finnish handset maker over alleged patent violations.

The ITC on Monday formally began its investigation into whether Apple has infringed on patents owned by Nokia. The complaint was originally opened in late December, when Nokia filed a lawsuit with the ITC alleging Apple has infringed on patents in its iPhones, iPods and Mac line of products.

In total, Nokia has accused Apple of treading on seven distinct patents to create key features in products through the user interface, camera, antenna and power management technologies. Nokia officials believe Apple has infringed on patents it owns that have led to key advances in small electronic devices.

According to Reuters, the ITC could choose to ban Apple from selling products in the U.S., if it finds the Cupertino, Calif., company to be in violation. A Nokia spokeswoman said the company was "pleased" that the ITC had begun its investigation quickly.

But weeks after Nokia filed its ITC complaint, Apple fired back with a lawsuit of its own. Apple has asked the ITC to ban handset imports from Nokia, and it's possible the commission could also choose to investigate Apple's claims as well. Given that Apple filed its ITC complaint weeks after Nokia, such a decision would likely be made in the near future.

Still, CSS Insight analyst John Jackson told Reuters that the ITC's decision was a "clear tactical win" for Nokia. But given how long these kinds of disputes typically last, the impact will not likely be known for some time.

The dispute began last October, when Nokia sued Apple over the alleged infringement of patents related to GSM, wireless LAN and UMTS. Then, in December, Apple countersued Nokia, alleging that the Finnish company infringed on 13 of its patents.

Nokia is seeking payments of up to 1 billion euros, or $1.415 billion, from Apple. Some industry watchers have predicted that the battle of two Goliaths could last up to three years.

Apple, in the past, said that it would "vigorously" defend itself from Nokia's claims. Apple executives were asked about the Nokia patent dispute during Monday's quarterly earnings conference call, but declined to comment.

"As you know, we have a long-standing process of not commenting on pending litigation," Chief Financial Officer Peter Oppenheimer said.

As the iPhone has grown in popularity, Nokia has retained its status as market leader, but has lost significant share of the market it has dominated. Many see Nokia's move to sue Apple as an attempt to fight off the gains Apple has seen in the smartphone market.