A judge on Wednesday strongly questioned Apple Inc's request for an injunction against Google Inc's Motorola Mobility unit at a crucial hearing in the smart phone patent wars between the two technology companies.
Federal Judge Richard Posner in Chicago said an injunction barring the sale of Motorola phones would have "catastrophic effects" on Motorola. Posner also questioned the worth of many software patents, noting deep systemic problems with the U.S. patent system.
"You can't just assume that because someone has a patent, he has some deep moral right to exclude everyone else from using the technology," Posner said.
Apple has waged an international patent war since 2010, part of its attempt to limit growth of Google's Android system, the world's best-selling mobile operating platform.
Opponents of Apple, meanwhile, say the iPhone and iPad maker is using patents too aggressively in its bid to stamp out the competition.
Motorola sued Apple in October 2010, a move widely seen as a preemptive strike. Apple filed its own lawsuit against Motorola the same month.
Posner issued a series of pretrial rulings that eliminated nearly all of Motorola's patent claims against Apple, while maintaining more of Apple's claims against Motorola. That meant Apple had more to gain at the trial, which had been set to start last week.
Earlier this month Posner canceled the trial, saying in a tentative ruling that neither side could prove damages. An injunction would be "contrary to the public interest," Posner wrote.
Yet last week, Posner granted Apple's request for a hearing on a possible injunction. Motorola also asked for an injunction connected to one patent in the case.
In court on Wednesday, Apple attorney Matthew Powers said the company is not seeking an order barring the sale of Motorola phones. Rather, Apple would be satisfied with an injunction requiring Motorola remove Apple's patented technology from Motorola phones within three months.
Posner said it may be preferable to direct Motorola to pay Apple a compulsory royalty. Nothing would stop Apple from coming back into court after three months to claim Motorola is still infringing, he said.
"That's all we need is new actions, new suits, because there's not enough litigation worldwide between Apple and Android," Posner said.
The case in U.S. District Court, Northern District of Illinois, is Apple Inc and NeXT Software Inc v. Motorola Inc and Motorola Mobility Inc, 11-cv-8540.