January 2007 iPhone introduction (Proximity sensor slide)

Apple’s patent troubles with the struggling handset maker has largely been viewed as a proxy fight with Google, which acquired Motorola Mobility along with its vast patent portfolio in August 2011 for $12.5 billion. Two and a half years ago Motorola asserted its proximity sensor patent against Apple. Monday, the U.S. International Trade Commission (ITC) threw Motorola’s complaint out of the window, invalidating Motorola’s patent because it’s too obvious. That’s good news for Apple as Google was hoping to leverage that patent to seek an import ban against iPhones…

Google, of course, is likely to appeal the ruling to the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, where an appeal of the ITC’s previous decision to throw out three other Motorola patents is underway.

Patent blogger Florian Müeller explained on his blog, FOSS Patents, that on appeal Google would have to overcome the patent obviousness argument “as well as various other defenses Apple will raise.”

At the heart of the dispute is Motorola’s Patent No. 6,246,862 for “Sensor controlled user interface for portable communication device.”

Basically, the invention describes tapping a proximity sensor on a mobile device to automatically disable the touchscreen. During the January 2007 iPhone introduction, Steve Jobs mentioned the iPhone’s proximity sensor as preventing spray input when you bring up the handset to your ear to make a phone call.

The feature also allows for a better user experience because it saves your battery, he argued.

Motorola proximity sensor patent

Bloomberg quotes a Google spokesperson as saying that the Internet giant is now “evaluating our options.”

Motorola’s complaint dates back to 2010, when the handset maker accused Apple’s iPhones of breaching as much as eighteen patents it owns. The company was specifically seeking to impose an import ban on iPhones based on the alleged patent infringement.

However, the ITC sided with Apple on those patent claims and yesterday’s ruling marked the sixth Motorola patent invalidation. Some of the Motorola claims the courts previously dismissed include patents related to Wi-Fi, 3G and UMTS networking.