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The Apple Lawsuit Report: The Little Things Do Count

So we all know that Apple has been fighting tooth and nail to assert intellectual property rights against companies who build mobile handsets using the Google Android OS platform. In a sense, it’s a proxy war, because much of what those companies are delivering, the alleged infringing products — other than a few proprietary interface elements — incorporate Google’s OS.

Forgetting the merits of Apple’s legal case, this is indeed the classic battle to the death, and it’s based on decisions originally made by Steve Jobs. As quoted in Walter Isaacson’s best-selling biography of Apple’s late co-founder, Jobs vowed “to destroy Android,” because of his belief that Google “ripped off the iPhone, wholesale.”

Indeed it’s clear that Apple has invested millions in legal fees to file complaints with trade officials and courts around the world. They’ve had a few victories here and there, a few losses, and many of the cases are still in progress. If they win, the other side appeals, if they lose, they appeal. It’s a baseball game with an unlimited number of extra innings.

In one notable victory, Apple has been granted a request for a ban on HTC phones by the U.S. International Trade Commission based on a Mac OS and iOS technology we just take for granted. It originally debuted in the Classic Mac OS era, as “Apple Data Detectors,” and it’s so simple in operation it’s almost magic.

Just click on, say, a phone number, an address or even such information as a tracking number from an overnight carrier, and you’ll get a context-sensitive set of options. For example, with a phone number on a Mac, you can add it to an existing Address Book contact or create a new one. With an iPhone, you can click a prompt to call that number. If it’s a tracking number, you can check the progress of the package.

This feature was “borrowed” by Google for use in their Android OS. But with this particular ruling, they are clearly going to have to change the underlying code somehow, or kill this oh-so-useful feature. The ITC’s ruling has established a ban that’s effective April 19, to give carriers and handset makers sufficient time to kill the feature or attempt to find a way to a deliver data detectors variant in a way that doesn’t infringe on Apple’s patents.

As you might expect, HTC is trying to put the best face on the turn of events, minimizing the value of data detectors as a part of the overall user experience. They do admit, however, that they will remove the feature from any phones that are currently using it. Apple was quoted as saying that these companies should create their own technology and stop using Apple’s intellectual property. Besides, HTC isn’t doing so well when it comes to asserting their own rights. In October, the ITC made an initial ruling that the iPhone doesn’t violate four patents owned by HTC.

But these tiny victories are but minor skirmishes in a seemingly endless world war over intellectual property rights. Apple will give no ground, nor will any of the companies that they are targeting. In turn, some of these companies are suing Apple to assert rights they claim to own. That, of course, might just be a case of creating a defense that diverts attention from the real issues. But that’s for the courts to decide.

Now some analysts are suggesting that Apple’s ongoing legal encounters have served to help them refine their litigation strategy, so they can better target future lawsuits in order to deliver a positive result. I don’t pretend to know where these legal fights might go. Perhaps there will ultimately be some detente, where some patents will be licensed. Perhaps Google and their partners will just go back to the drawing boards hoping to change elements of Android to make it less likely to infringe on Apple’s intellectual property. That is, if they can do that without gutting the system.

Sure, some of you prefer to believe that companies should simply concentrate on building clever, innovative products, not in aping someone else’s technology. I suppose, but it’s also true that it hardly makes sense to spend loads of cash on R&D if the fruits of that creativity are freely taken by others. That’s the reason there are patent laws, and a company has the right to protect intellectual property.

On the other hand, despite recent patent reform in the U.S., it is clear that the bar to grant a patent ought to be raised. Some inventions seem so simple and basic, you can hardly believe one company has the exclusive. That appears to be the case for Amazon’s One-Click feature, which allows you to easily order something without having to reenter your shipping and payment information, and it seems not to involve any great technological leaps.

But we live in the here and now, and it’s clear any changes to patent laws that better embrace reality will take years to put into effect, even if such a thing could be accomplished. And that’s highly debatable. Meantime, there will be lawsuits, and more lawsuits, and, at least in those Apple-versus-everyone cases, the Cold War may persist for many more years. And you have to wonder just how much of the money you pay for a new gadget is used to fund a company’s legal defense.