Is Apple’s recent victory in a Munich court a hollow victory?

A great deal of attention has been given in the tech/legal media to the Apple patent known as the “slide to unlock” patent. It was recently litigated in Germany.

Those familiar with Apple products will know that it is possible to lock some iPods and iPhones to prevent unauthorised use. To unlock the device, a user has to slide a so-called “slider” across a portion of the device’s screen. This is sometimes accompanied by a request to enter a pin code.

Apple claimed that the patent was infringed by an unlock feature used by two of Motorola Mobility’s (MM’s) smartphone products that run Google’s android operating system. The mention of Google’s operating system is bit of a red herring, because the exact implementation of the unlock feature is a manufacturer matter as opposed to something mandated by Google’s Android operating system. Google is, though, in the process of acquiring MM, which does make things interesting.

A court in Munich has now announced a decision in Apple’s favour, but this does not extend to MM’s Xoom product. However, in a recent statement, a spokesperson for Motorola Mobility stated that this decision will not affect current supply or future sales. Nevertheless, we understand that MM has decided to change the unlocking feature.

It’s not clear whether MM will nevertheless appeal the decision, but what is clear and almost completely ignored by most of the media is that this is not the whole story. In Germany, patent validity is handled by a different court to patent infringement. You therefore have a two-track system. This means that although one court may find a patent is infringed, the other court may find the patent invalid in which case the fact that the patent is infringed is all very interesting, but doesn’t really get you anywhere because you never had any valid patent rights in the first place.

Typically, a court handling the infringement case refrains from making a decision before there has been a pronouncement on the validity of the patent in question. This was also the case for the Apple patent. However, it seems that Apple managed to persuade the court that MM’s attack on the validity of their patent was unlikely to succeed.

Whether this is how things will play out in the court is an entirely different matter. All we will say is that one poster on a news website recently observed that the front gate outside his house had a slide to unlock feature! The matter of validity may therefore not yet be in the bag for Apple. Indeed, a Dutch court has, in the past, declared invalid a corresponding Dutch patent for the same invention.

As the song, album title and saying goes: it ain’t over ’til it’s over!