Tables Turn for Apple's Rep as Patent Bully

Apple's competitors seem like they're tired of getting picked on

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All over the world, Apple has been launching patent infringement lawsuits at competitors like HTC and Samsung in what seems like a naked attempt to bolster their mobile devices market share. But just after a pair of victories that meant to block the sale of the Android-powered HTC and Samsung device, the tables turned. Typically the punch thrower, Apple must now defend itself in patent infringement lawsuit filed by HTC and against accusations that they doctored images to Samsung devices look more like theirs. And with Google's recent purchase of Motorola Mobility, Apple's lawsuits against Android devices could get much more complicated.

On Tuesday, HTC sued Apple on three counts of patent infringement. Filed in Deleware, the lawsuit called for a halt on the importation of Macs, iPhones, iPads and other devices. These two companies have been at it for a while, now. Two weeks ago, HTC filed a patent infringement lawsuit in the United Kingdom, seemingly in response to a mid-July ruling in favor of Apple that called for an import ban on HTC devices in the United States due to two counts of copyright infringement. But the biggest blow came last spring when Apple accused the Google-HTC Nexus phone of infringing on a whopping 20 patents, most of them related to the iPhone interface.

"We can sit by and watch competitors steal our patented inventions, or we can do something about it. We've decided to do something about it," said Steve Jobs at the time. "We think competition is healthy, but competitors should create their own original technology, not steal ours."

But industry experts have so far framed the fight a little bit differently. Some have accused Apple of bullying smaller competitors or as "picking off the weaker members of the herd" as Harvard law professor Jonathan Zittrain described it. Others think that Apple has taken a backwards view of patent law.

"It's a bad scene right now. The social value of patents was supposed to be to encourage innovation--that's what society gets out of it," MIT professor of technology innovation Eric Von Hipple told the The New York Times. "The net effect is that they decrease innovation, and in the end, the public loses out."

This is exactly what's been happening with the Samsung case in Europe. Last week, Apple successfully blocked the sale of the Samsung Galaxy tablet, an iPad competitor, also by claiming patent infringement related to the device's user interface. A court-ordered injunction blocked the sale of the Samsung tablet, ostensibly forcing the public into buying iPads. That strategy backfired this week, when news emerged that Apple had doctored images of the interface submitted to the court to make the two devices seem more similar, and the injunction was temporarily lifted.

Though he's not always portrayed as a nice guy, this week's events have left Steve Jobs looking like a lying bully. Apparently, though, the rest of companies in the playground are tired of being picked on. Monday's news that Google had acquired Motorola Mobility means that Apple no longer has a bigger warchest of patents than smaller competitors with Android affiliations. Zittrain suggested last year that eventually Apple's jab at HTC could eventually lead to an attack against Google. With Samsung and HTC forming a united front behind Android, Google's patent power play appears to come in anticipation of a more aggressive push for the platform's domination. And that affront so far looks like it's putting Apple on the defense.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.