Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Spanish tablet computer maker NT-K acquitted of criminal charges related to iPad design rights infringement

[UPDATE on November 3, 2011] I have meanwhile published a follow-up post that shows and translates the court order dismissing the case and explains that apparently Apple did not actually litigate this case -- its involvement appears to have been limited to an indictment. [/UPDATE]

Talk about David and Goliath: a small Spanish tablet computer maker named Nuevas Tecnologías y Energías Catalá from the Valencia region has successfully defended its Android-based tablet computers (marketed under the label nt-k) in court and is now seeking damages from Apple for a temporary seizure of its products by Spanish customs. Furthermore, the Spaniards are pursuing an antitrust complaint against Apple, alleging abusive anticompetitive behavior.

What makes this is even more noteworthy is the fact that Apple alleged an infringement of the same design-related right -- a so-called Community design -- with which it won two injunctions against Samsung in Germany (one related to the Galaxy Tab 10.1 and another one related to the Galaxy Tab 7.7) but lost in the Netherlands (where an injunction was granted only against certain Samsung smartphones and based on a technical patent, not a design-related right). However, the fact that the court found no crime isn't the same as finding no infringement. A crime can also be denied on other grounds such as a lack of criminal intent.

Yesterday, the company behind the nt-k brand published an assertive and triumphant post (in Spanish) to its corporate blog, commenting on a ruling by a local court (the Juzgado de Primera Instancia e Instrucción número 1 de Quart de Poblet). Quart de Poblet is only a small town, but its local court handles all customs-related disputes for the whole Valencia region. The nt-k company itself is based in the city of Valencia.

In addition to the nt-k corporate blog, have read some Spanish media reports such as this Expansión article. This is really an interesting story.

Apparently, Apple accused nt-k in November 2010 of "copying" the iPad and went straight for a customs ban. As a result, Spanish customs seized shipments from China containing nt-k's Android-based tablet. The little company temporarily appeared on an EU-wide list of product pirates, but worst of all, after some correspondence between the two companies, Apple also brought criminal charges on December 9, 2010 (as it had previously threatened in writing).

Considering that this was not a case of product piracy but just a dispute over whether or not Apple has exclusive design rights covering nt-k's Android-based products, I think it's absolutely outrageous that Apple tried to attack its rival under criminal law. Having a commercial dispute is one thing, but going down the criminal law avenue is totally unreasonable.

The Spanish company's blog suggests that other small companies got a similar treatment from Apple but gave in. nt-k, however, didn't want to be bullied and decided to defend itself vigorously. Another company doing so against Apple is a small German device maker named JAY-tech (I reported on that case in August).

In August, nt-k lodged an antitrust complaint with the Spanish competition regulator, the Comisión Nacional de la Competencia (CNC), alleging that Apple was abusively shutting out competition. It's not clear from the reports whether a formal antitrust investigation is underway, but it seems that the complaint has not been dismissed, so Apple could still face some problems there. In the meantime, the criminal lawsuit progressed, and based on the first-instance ruling, Apple's charges were dismissed because the judge didn't conclude that there was "sufficient justification" for a criminal case.

Now nt-k is suing Apple for compensation for monetary damages, lost profits, and also for "moral damages".

I think Apple should use better judgment in the future. This story from Spain makes Apple look very bad. Even though it appears that Apple didn't actually litigate, I continue to believe that design rights infringements should be addressed under civil law only unless they really amount to criminal counterfeiting.

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