Under the Gavel: Motorola patents trump Apple in Germany

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Visitors to Germany’s online Apple Store may have witnessed an odd sight on Friday, as Apple scrambled to remove the iPhone 3G, iPhone 3GS, iPhone 4, and all Wi-Fi + 3G iPads, thanks to a temporary injunction banning the sale of those products—a ban that was lifted mere hours later. In addition, iCloud users in the country may have to change how they get their email, thanks to a separate legal issue.

In terms of Apple's physical products, the back and forth is the result of the ongoing patent disputes that have dominated the tech world of late. In this case, the combatants were Apple and Motorola Mobility, the smartphone-making subsidiary of Motorola that was purchased last year by Google. At issue are patents covering certain 3G technologies, which Motorola has pledged to license under “fair, reasonable, and non-discriminatory” (FRAND) terms as part of the 3G standards process. (The iPhone 4S was not affected by the injunction, likely because it uses a different 3G baseband chip than its predecessors.)

Motorola Mobility won an injunction against Apple late last year, but it apparently wasn’t served until this week, which resulted in Apple being forced to remove the offending products from its online store in Germany—but only temporarily. Apple quickly appealed the ruling, and has already been granted a temporary suspension of the injunction, which means that the products should, as of this writing, be available in Germany once again.

However, that reprieve may itself be temporary, as it depends on a German court to decide whether Apple’s latest offer to license the patents in question from Motorola is sufficient to meet certain required legal criteria.

In a statement provided to AllThingsD earlier on Friday, an Apple spokesperson said “All iPad and iPhone models will be back on sale through Apple’s online store in Germany shortly. Apple appealed this ruling because Motorola repeatedly refuses to license this patent to Apple on reasonable terms, despite having declared it an industry standard patent seven years ago.”

Overall, the injunction will likely have little effect on Apple’s sales in Germany, given the exceedingly brief period for which the devices were actually unavailable. But it reinforces the importance of Apple coming to some sort of agreement with Motorola over licensing, as Motorola’s deep patent portfolio clearly has some stopping power.

This isn’t the only issue in dispute between the two companies, however: Patent expert Florian Mueller reports that Motorola Mobility won a second injunction against Apple on Friday, this time regarding the delivery of push email. Push email allows any incoming email to be immediately delivered from the server to your phone, rather than messages being fetched at fixed intervals (usually every 15 - 45 minutes). Due to a patent claim by Motorola, Apple may not be able to have email pushed to iCloud users in Germany; instead, those users will have to resort to having their email fetched on a regular schedule. While the injunction in this case is permanent rather than preliminary, Apple can (and likely will) appeal the case in a higher court.

Though these two cases are unrelated, they do show a favorable atmosphere towards Motorola in Germany, and the company seems to be using the cases as a jumping off point to launch similar suits against Apple in the U.S. as well. To date, Apple has avoided getting directly embroiled with Google about Android, instead launching suits against partners like HTC and Samsung, but with Motorola now part of the Google family, it seems that the conflict is poised to escalate to open war.

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