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Monday, April 18, 2011, 06:20 pm PT (09:20 pm ET)

ITC staff voices support for HTC, Nokia in Apple patent case

The staff of the U.S. International Trade commission has recommended that HTC and Nokia not be found liable of infringing on Apple's patents in a dispute over smartphone technologies.

The ITC trial began on Monday in Washington, with Apple requesting that the commission block imports of HTC's Android-based handsets, as well as some Nokia devices, Bloomberg reports.

Staff lawyer Erin Joffre relayed the ITC staff recommendation, which is made on behalf of the public, in favor of HTC and Nokia at the start of the trial. The staff's recommendation is not binding and will be considered by ITC Administrative Law Judge Carl Charneski before he releases his findings on Aug. 5.

Carneski's ruling would then be subject to review by the six-member commission. The ITC serves as a "quasi-judicial" federal agency and has the power to block the importing of products to the U.S.

According to the report, this is the first Android-related patent dispute that has reached the trial stage at the ITC. More than a dozen cases involving smartphones have been brought before the commission.

“What makes Apple products so successful is not just what you see, but what’s under the hood,” said Apple lawyer Greg Arovas of Kirkland & Ellis in opening arguments. Arovas went on to state Apple's claim that HTC infringes five patents vital to the “seamless integration of hardware and software” in a smartphone.

HTC lawyer Robert Van Nest of Keker & Van Nest responded by arguing that Apple's patents "were, at best, a very narrow distinction" from other inventions. At issue are several patents related to signal processing and inter-process communications developed in the early 1990s.

“HTC is a smartphone innovator and pioneer in the smartphone sphere — they were there long before Apple,” Van Nest said. “The fundamental differences from the Apple patents represent choices made by HTC and Google.”

Apple also alleges that Nokia has violated the same signal processing patent as the one listed in the HTC case. As such, the claim has been "spun off from a separate complaint against Nokia, which is scheduled to be decided by June 24," the report noted.

Nokia lawyer Pat Flinn of Alston & Bird accused Apple of deciding to "dredge up patents" after the "pioneers of mobile phones" approached the company for royalties.

Advances in technology have made the patent moot,” Flinn said of Apple's signal processing patent. “The Apple iPhone doesn’t practice the patent.”

Apple vs. HTC

After Apple filed a complaint accusing HTC of infringing 20 of its patents, the ITC agreed last April to review the case. HTC's Nexus One and myTouch smartphones were specifically mentioned in the suit.

HTC responded by countersuing Apple, alleging the iPhone maker had violated five patents.

As Android has attracted more than a dozen patent disputes, Google has spoken out in support of its hardware partners. "We are not a party to this lawsuit," spokesperson for the company said last year. "However, we stand behind our Android operating system and the partners who have helped us to develop it."

HTC asserted last year that the suit has not affected the Taiwanese handset maker's operations. "It's part of business," said HTC CEO Peter Chou. "We need to face it and everyone can talk through it."

Apple vs. Nokia

In 2009, Nokia made the first move by filing a lawsuit against Apple, alleging that the iPhone infringes upon GSM and wireless LAN related patents. Apple vowed to "vigorously" defend itself against the suit. The ITC began formally investigating the suit in January 2010.

Last month, the ITC ruled that Apple did not infringe five patents belonging to Nokia. Within days, Nokia had filed a second complaint with the ITC, accusing Apple's iPhone, iPod, iPad and Mac products of infringing upon seven patents.

"Our latest ITC filing means we now have 46 Nokia patents in suit against Apple, many filed more than 10 years before Apple made its first iPhone," said Paul Melin, vice president of intellectual property at Nokia. "Nokia is a leading innovator in technologies needed to build great mobile products and Apple must stop building its products using Nokia's proprietary innovation."

Since 2008, Apple has been the most-sued technology company, according to one research firm. In order to defend itself, the Cupertino, Calif., company has hired several prominent patent lawyers as outside counsel.