Friday, February 22, 2013

HTC wins delay of two Nokia antenna patent suits in Germany: one case stayed, one trial adjourned

Today the Mannheim Regional Court held a double-header trial on infringement claims brought by Nokia against HTC over two antenna patents. The Taiwanese mobile device maker is under pressure from some other Nokia patent suits in Germany (more information on upcoming decisions further below) but has nothing to fear in the short term from the two lawsuits that went to trial today. After Judge Andreas Voss ("Voß" in German) outlined his court's thinking, Nokia stipulated to a stay of the first case (pending a parallel nullity proceeding initiated by HTC before the Federal Patent Court) and adopted the court's guidance to assert another claim, which requires a new trial at a date to be scheduled by the court in due course (I believe it will take place in the second half of the year).

The patent-in-suit in the first case -- the one that got stayed -- is EP1329982 on an "antenna for wireless communications devices". Nokia is asserting an amended version of claim 10 of this patent. The amendment narrows the scope of the claim through an additional limitation (element) which requires a certain electrical connection within the antenna to be brought about "by means of compression" as opposed to soldering. Nokia proposed this amendment to the Federal Patent Court in response to HTC's nullity (invalidation) complaint and, accordingly, narrowed the scope of its prayers for relief in the infringement case. Judge Voss expressed serious doubt about whether this amendment would ultimately salvage the asserted patent claim in the nullity proceeding. HTC's lead counsel in today's cases, Hogan Lovells' Dr. Martin Chakraborty, argued that the proposed additional limitation was the obvious answer of any person of ordinary skill in the art to the question of how to reduce manufacturing costs. After internal consultation with his client, Nokia's lead counsel in the antenna patent actions, Klaus Haft (a name partner of Reimann Osterrieth Koehler Haft), told Judge Voss that he stipulated to a stay in order to help conserve court resources. Otherwise the Mannheim Regional Court would have had to assess the probability of the amended claim's validity before the Federal Patent Court, which hears all German nullity cases. The hurdle for a court-ordered stay would have been relatively low because the amended claim had not been examined by a paten office or affirmed by a nullity court.

At the subsequent trial over EP0867967, Judge Voss said that the panel of judges he presides over is unconvinced of an infringement of the asserted claim, claim 1, because the court is reluctant to consider a phone's back cover an "attachment element" of the antenna as opposed to a non-antenna component of the mobile device. Claim 8 (another independent apparatus claim) does not raise this issue because it claims an overall device as opposed to only an antenna. Mr. Haft (again after internal consultation with his client) opted to bring an additional infringement allegation over claim 8. Nokia would have liked this additional assertion to be adjudged on the fast track (after some limited post-trial briefing), but HTC insisted that another trial be held, and the court adjourned this trial. A new trial date will be set in due course.

Last summer Nokia was on the winning track with respect to this patent in Munich, where RIM was the defendant. But the infringement issues were probably different, and the dispute between Nokia and RIM was settled between the first hearing in the summer (at which the court appeared to side with Nokia) and the trial, which would have taken place last month.

Nokia has asserted more than 30 different patents against HTC. In this you-win-some-you-lose-some game it's inevitable that some of its assertions will fail, while others will succeed. Ultimately Nokia just needs to prevail on enough of these patents so that HTC will be willing to settle on terms palatable to Nokia. It makes sense for Nokia to focus its energy on those claims that are most likely to succeed.

Today's stipulated stay is already the second one in a Nokia v. HTC case in Mannheim. Earlier this month a different panel of Mannheim judges held trials over two other patent infringement lawsuits between these parties. While Nokia is likely to win a favorable ruling on one of them on March 19, the court arrived at a rather broad interpretation of a patent claim involving statements of purpose or use, and based on that broad claim construction, the patent would be infringed but also likely to be invalid.

In a week from today the Mannheim court (in this case, Judge Voss's panel again) will announce a decision (which may or may not be a final ruling, and could go either way) on Nokia's case against HTC's distribution of the Google Play store client, a case in which Google is acting as an intervenor. The sae patent was on the verge of coming to judgment against Apple in the spring of 2011, but a week before the ruling date the parties settled. Mr. Haft and his firm also represented Nokia against Apple in that action and other Mannheim cases that looked promising for the Finnish device maker and presumably made a key contribution to the outcome of the wider dispute.

If you'd like to be updated on the smartphone patent disputes and other intellectual property matters I cover, please subscribe to my RSS feed (in the right-hand column) and/or follow me on Twitter @FOSSpatents and Google+.

Share with other professionals via LinkedIn: