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ITC Scrutinizes Apple After Motorola Complains

The merry-go-round of lawsuits about patent infringement in smartphones has just taken its latest spin: The ITC is investigating Apple after Motorola alleged it was violating 18 Motorola-owned patents in every iDevice it sells.

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The merry-go-round of lawsuits about patent infringement in smartphones has just taken its latest spin: The ITC is investigating Apple after Motorola alleged it was violating 18 Motorola-owned patents in every iDevice it sells. Is either of them right, or is the entire patent law system in the wrong?

Recently Motorola filed suit against Apple, alleging that the smartphone maker’s iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch devices violated patent-protected Motorola IP relating to GPRS, Wi-Fi, and wireless communication tricks as well as wireless antenna design, and also that MobileMe infringed on Motorola cloud-services patents. And the biggest accusation is that Apple’s wildly successful app store is also a patent-thief.

The ITC has just voted to investigate Apple in the light of these allegations, and though of course it hasn’t pronounced its findings yet, the move is an indication in favor of Motorola, since the ITC hasn’t said it’ll investigate Motorola in response to Apple’s counter-suit alleging the Droid smartphones violate Apple’s own multitouch IP.

Is the allegation that Apple’s infringing 18 Motorola patents with merit? We can’t say until the courts have decided many months hence, and even then we may not fully know the truth. Is it true to say Motorola’s Droids violate Apple’s patents? Again we can’t say, although there’s long been a question about who can “own” multitouch. What we can say is that it looks, from the outside, like a desperate move from a failing once-giant company which has just had a gentle positive change in fortunes to keep its new growth on track. Because, let’s face it, even if Moto’s patents are valid without the iPhone, Motorola wouldn’t be building Android phones right now.

The other thing to note is that while Apple’s suing Motorola and Motorola’s suing Apple, Nokia’s also suing Apple, and Apple’s retaliating. Meanwhile Apple’s also suing HTC and Microsoft’s suing HTC and HTC is suing someone else and somebody else is suing another party and…. Smartphones are very big business–billions of dollars over the next several years alone–which is why all this nonsense is happening, aided by an aging patent system that is seemingly at its limits (even the U.K. is pushing for patent law reform). We’re all left as powerless onlookers pondering that if only all these crazy lawsuits would evaporate, then Apple, Motorola, HTC and everyone could spend the money developing better phones instead of funding lawyer’s Ferrari habits.

[Image via Picasa user Kristen Taddel]

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To keep up with this news, and more like it, follow me, Kit Eaton, on Twitter.

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I'm covering the science/tech/generally-exciting-and-innovative beat for Fast Company. Follow me on Twitter, or Google+ and you'll hear tons of interesting stuff, I promise.

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