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An Apple a Day Won’t Keep the Lawyers Away

There are so many legal actions now revolving around the iPhone that I can’t keep track. Maybe sometime soon Apple will have an app for that. In the meantime, I’m grabbing some peanuts and Cracker Jacks before sitting back to enjoy the game. I have no idea how many suits and other legal actions will be filed before its over, but there’s sure to be more to come. Two new actions were filed yesterday alone. I think this game might go into extra innings.

The latest round, call it the second inning, started on March 2nd, with first at bat Apple filing a lawsuit against HTC, the Taiwanese manufacturer of Nexus One (Google’s flagship Android device) and other smartphones running Google’s Linux based mobile operating system. Jobs & Company claims that HTC is infringing on 20 Apple iPhone patents, mostly dealing with the GUI and hardware/software design. Apple is seeking an unspecified amount of damages, but perhaps more importantly they are asking for a permanent injunction that would forbid HTC from importing or offering for sale any of their Android devices in the U.S.

Apple’s real target in this suit, according to the smart money guys, is Google, who designs and distributes the operating system that promises to be the iPhone’s greatest competition. HTC is being sued by proxy, because their pockets aren’t as deep as Google’s, meaning they won’t be able to put up as much a fight. Gladiator Jobs has evidently decided he’d rather take on HTC as David than fight Goliath Google.

But there might be another angle. A friend, a dedicated Apple follower and close observer of the Silicon Valley scene, says he thinks Apple’s suit against HTC is actually a shot over the bow of Microsoft. According to this theory, Jobs still clearly remembers the days when MS stole features from the Mac GUI to beef-up Windows. With Redmond now attempting to reenter the mobile market with Windows Phone 7, Jobs isn’t about to let Microsoft again gain a foothold on Apple’s back.

Maybe. Maybe not. But it’s certainly safe to assume that Jobs wouldn’t be too disappointed if Microsoft takes note of his “don’t tread on me” approach. Evidently they have, for at the end of April Microsoft signed an agreement with HTC, giving the handset maker protection from falling afoul of Microsoft’s patents and, perhaps, giving both companies some leverage to use against Apple.

With Microsoft at their back, HTC has decided that the best defense is to go on the offense, and yesterday they filed a complaint with the International Trade Commission, claiming that the iPhone, iPad, and iPod infringe on five HTC patents. In a tit for tat, the complaint asks that sales and imports of these Apple devices be halted. Their reason for filing a complaint with the ITC instead of seeking redress in federal court isn’t clear; it could mean they think their case isn’t strong enough to stand up in court or it could be because an ITC decision would be much quicker than a prolonged legal battle.

If this wasn’t entertaining enough, Apple’s iProducts are under attack by other legal challengers as well.

Phone maker Nokia, who in the first inning of this game filed a patent infringement suit against Apple in October (with Apple almost immediately filing a counter claim), on Friday filed another suit, claiming that Apple’s 3G products infringe on five patents having to do with “technologies for enhanced speech and data transmission, using positioning data in applications and innovations in antenna configurations that improve performance and save space, allowing smaller and more compact devices.”

Then yesterday a small Washington based startup, Softview, a distributer of a vector graphic display system and a web browser for mobile devices, filled suit against Apple and AT&T (the exclusive carrier for the iPhone) for patent infringements. Job’s & Company will doubtlessly fight this one out in court and no one will be surprised if they don’t file a counter suit.

With this barrage of legal activity only two innings into the game, is it any wonder that Cupertino can’t keep track of their next generation iPhone prototypes? But that’s a whole ‘nother game. Hint: One of them isn’t really an Apple, but I’m just guessing.

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