Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Munich court denies Microsoft a preliminary injunction against the Motorola RAZR smartphone

In the context of the Munich I Regional Court's denial of an Apple bid for a preliminary injunction against two Samsung devices, I already said that "[p]reliminary injunctions based on technical patents (as opposed to design-related rights) are relatively unusual in Germany". Today, the same court, under the same presiding judge (Judge Andreas Mueller), also denied a Microsoft motion for a preliminary injunction against Motorola Mobility's RAZR smartphone.

Microsoft had brought its complaint on December 20, 2011, a fact that explains in retrospect why Motorola didn't why Motorola wasn't too generous the following week when Microsoft asked for an extension of time in an ITC proceeding. In the months since, the parties filed some pleadings, and a hearing took place this morning. I attended it. The decision was handed down at the end of the day (by regular office hours), and I just found out about the outcome: the court denied the motion, without stating any reasons (German courts don't provide a reasoning in this kind of situation).

Microsoft asserted EP1193956 on "merging various request methods into a single unified user interface" against the new Motorola RAZR. Preliminary injunction are only allowed to target products that were released not too long before the motion (that's the case not only in Germany but also in the United States, and presumably many -- if not all -- other jurisdictions).

The asserted patent basically covers the functionality of letting users type numbers or letters (which on traditional phones are on number keys anyway) and then scours multiple databases (contact list, list of last calls etc.) for possible matches. This way, users don't have to look up different lists to find what they're looking for.

Based on how the hearing went, this outcome was not a surprise. While Microsoft had a good case for validity (the court wasn't too impressed with Motorola's prior art reference, a Qualcomm patent application), there was serious doubt about infringement. I don't know if Microsoft will continue to pursue this case in a main proceeding (a preliminary injunction decision is not the end of the process unless both parties agree) but in this fast-track proceeding (the hearing lasted only about an hour) Microsoft's lawyers didn't have a chance to overcome the court's initial concern that Motorola's speed dial feature, which requires users to press and hold down a number key, fell outside the scope of the patent. Microsoft argued that Motorola's implementation nevertheless implemented the patented invention and claimed that its stated objective of simplifying and unifying this kind of search operation in a single user interface was met. But today was not the right day for those arguments to succeed.

Patent litigation between large players is a "you win some, you lose some" game. Preliminary injunction requests are largely attributable to the need to maximize leverage at any given stage of a dispute. There's clearly the risk of a patent infringement allegation being dismissed in a fast-track proceeding even though the very same claim might succeed in a full-blown main proceeding, and once a given court has taken a position, it's somewhat likely to reaffirm its own ruling at the end of the main proceeding as well. But those who have enough patent arrows in the quiver sometimes give it a try.

Between Microsoft and Motorola, the most important decisions this month will relate to Motorola's pursuit of injunctions based on FRAND-pleged standard-essential patents. Microsoft has a (defensive) preliminary injunction motion pending in the Western District of Washington. A hearing on that one is scheduled for April 11. And on April 17, the Mannheim Regional Court will decide on a Motorola subsidiary's lawsuits against Microsoft over two patents that Motorola and the court consider to be essential to the H.264 video codec standard.

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