The US International Trade Commission has decided to investigate HTC's allegations that Apple is infringing its patents. Its answer could see the iPhone banned from American stores.
The ITC's investigation is in response to HTC's complaint, filed on May 12th, that Apple is in breach of various patents owned by HTC. The complaint calls for a ban on the import of infringing products - an interesting prospect, but one that's pretty unlikely to actually happen.
At least the ITC will have Apple's details handy: it's already investigating possible infringements of touch-screen patents owned by Elan Microelectronics, which could equally well lead to an import ban.
Complaints to the ITC are very much in vogue at the moment, given the speed the decision can be made with and the immediate financial pain inflicted on the losing party. Patent battles can and do rage for decades, mostly to the benefit of the legal minds involved. Such spats can also lead to some sort of phased royalty payment which itself is generally subject to lengthy (and expensive) negotiations.
ITC investigations, in contrast, follow a strict timetable, and if the Commission upholds the compaint then infringing products cannot be legally imported into the US. That puts huge pressure on the company to resolve the dispute. When Qualcomm faced such a ban the company used every weapon at its disposal - the company even planned a personal appeal to then-president George Bush, but in the end had to grovel to Broadcom for a licence.
A ban on Apple products would certainly hurt the company, and quite possibly the US economy, but such a thing is still a very long way off. The ITC has announced it will be investigating, and now has 45 days to announce a schedule for that investigation.
Even if Apple is found to be infringing HTC's patents it will still get 60 days to appeal to the US Trade Representative. Such an appeal depends on the public good, and lack of harm to the infringed party. Qualcomm's public profile and political clout wasn't enough to help, but Apple has more of both and that certainly wouldn't do any harm. ®