ITC staff backs Nokia in Apple case

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - The staff at the U.S. International Trade Commission has found that Nokia Corp did not violate Apple Inc’s patents, in an opinion submitted as part of the companies’ legal battle over smartphone technology.

The ITC’s investigative staff provided the recommendation in a brief on Monday, as the hearing between the two companies began.

An ITC spokeswoman noted on Wednesday that a staff finding has equal standing before the commission’s administrative law judge with statements by other parties arguing their cases.

The judge hearing the case through November 12, which was filed by Apple, is not required to follow staff advice.

Hearings in a related complaint by Nokia against Apple are scheduled to begin on November 29.

Nokia filed suit against Apple in a U.S. district court in October 2009, saying Apple’s iPhone had infringed 10 patents. Apple countersued, and both companies later filed complaints with the ITC.

Apple is asking the ITC to ban imports of infringing devices from Nokia, the world’s largest mobile phone maker. After the administrative law judge rules, which is expected in February, the full ITC will vote on whether to follow the judge’s ruling.

The fast-growing smartphone market has seen a slew of lawsuits in recent months.

Apple and HTC Corp have sued each other and also filed complaints with the ITC.

Last week, Apple sued rival Motorola Inc claiming the Droid smartphone maker infringes on three iPhone patents.

Reporting by Gabriel Madway and Diane Bartz; Editing by Richard Chang