Tuesday, May 7, 2013

German judge criticizes HTC's public statement on recent dismissal of Nokia patent case

At a patent infringement trial held today in Mannheim, Germany, a judge advised HTC (which he uniquely identified without naming it) not to read too much into the fact that a court dismisses a lawsuit by a ruling from the bench. Judge Dr. Holger Kircher, who presides over the Second Civil Chamber of the Mannheim Regional Court (one of two Mannheim panels handling numerous patent cases), made reference to a ruling issued from the bench two weeks ago, dismissing a Nokia lawsuit against HTC targeting the Google Play app and content store and said the cour had indirectly become aware of a subsequent public statement attributing the immediacy of the decision to the alleged exceptional weakness of the case and drawing inferences concerning the quality of Nokia's patents.

Judge Dr. Kircher clearly meant the following two sentences from HTC's recent statement:

"In an almost unprecedented move, the Court handed down its judgment immediately after the hearing, indicating that Nokia's infringement case was so poor that the court required no time to deliberate further after hearing Nokia's oral arguments. Nokia claims to have spent €45bn on R&D in the last 20 years, but this investment has apparently not been supported by effective patent prosecution."

Judge Dr. Kircher said that such interpretations "belong into the realm of mythology". Rulings from the bench are rare in patent infringement cases in Germany because most of the time at least one party is permitted to file a post-trial brief, which the court must await before deciding. In the Nokia v. HTC case in question, no one had moved for leave to file a post-trial brief, enabling a decision on the same day. "Seriously, the least important aspect here is the certainty with which the court makes its determination", Judge Dr. Kircher added.

HTC, which as I wrote above had not been addressed by name, did not comment on these remarks, which Judge Dr. Kircher made when he mentioned the Google Play case because of an overlap between today's cases and the other case relating to the infringement analysis.

Today's trial covered four closely-related cases: Nokia's lawsuits against HTC and ViewSonic over two patents from the same patent family, EP0882375 and EP1439723 on "a communication network terminal supporting a plurality of applications". Nokia asserts that the way in which Android routes push messages from third-party application servers over Google's server to applications installed on an end-user device infringes on these patents. The court's preliminary position was to find in Nokia's favor on infringement but to stay these cases over doubts about the validity of the asserted patent claims. Judge Dr. Kircher even suggested a stipulated stay, but Nokia respectfully declined and made an argument that I believe the court will think hard about. Simply put, the patented invention relates to the transmission of data from a server to a client, with the key inventive element being that a message destined for a particular app is placed inside another message, and the end-user device needs to look into a certain part of the inner message in order to determine the recipient app. Even if the communication process as a whole was patentable, a claim of direct infringement of an apparatus claim by an end-user device requires the part of the operation that occurs on the client side to meet the criteria for patentability. While it's correct to separate the validity analysis of a given apparatus claim from the patentability of a more comprehensive client-server method claim, I believe Nokia rightly argued that a message to be deciphered by a client device does not constitute prior art only because it's disclosed by another independent claim of the same patent. There must be a prior disclosure.

There are alternative grounds on which the court could deny an injunction. Google, which acts an intervenor in all four cases tried today, and ViewSonic, which did not bring a nullity action of its own against this patent, tried to convince the court of their non-infringement theories. The court could also consider the asserted patent claims obvious, though German courts are generally hesitant to stay patent infringement cases on that basis. A decision, which may or may not be a final ruling, has been scheduled for August 6, 2013. I took detailed notes at today's trial and may go into more detail on these push messaging cases after the court's decision.

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