Well, it took a while, but HTC has finally fired back against Apple with patent infringement claims of its own. The legal wrangling is almost cliché at this point, as tech companies leverage patent suits to stifle competition, and issues with the patent system spill over and become the burden of the legal system.
HTC has countered Apple's patent infringement lawsuit by filing a claim with the International Trade Commission (ITC) alleging Apple infringes on five HTC patents. Many experts have suggested that Apple's real target is Android, and Google itself, but it is fighting by proxy--going after the smaller low-hanging fruit like HTC.
In the wake of Apple's legal attack, HTC signed a patent licensing agreement with Microsoft related to HTC's Android-based handsets. There was some speculation that the relationship was a thinly-veiled signal to Apple that Microsoft might come to HTC's defense. It is more likely, though, that HTC gains some insight into Microsoft's intellectual property that can strengthen its position against Apple without any overt assistance from Microsoft.
The battle between Apple and HTC is just one of many patent battles being fought in the court system, though. Nokia and Apple have similar patent suits and countersuits in US district court, as well as with the ITC. Motorola has a complaint filed with the ITC against RIM--maker of the popular BlackBerry smartphones. The list goes on.
Basically, the legal department--once more a necessary evil to defend the company should the need arise--is now a part of the day to day business operations of major tech companies. Patent suits are part of a systemic business strategy to stifle competition.
Granted, all parties have a right to protect the intellectual property they invest in and develop. With technology, though, many patents seem trivial or inappropriate, and the lines between technologies patented by one company and technologies patented by another are very fine--if they exist at all.
At the root of the problem is the fact that the US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) lacks the resources--both in personnel and intellectual capacity--to comprehensively review the sheer volume of patents filed each year. The patent office relies on the filing party to have done sufficient due diligence regarding prior art and existing patents, and essentially rubber stamps patents and places the burden on the US legal system to sort it out after the fact.
Ultimately, it seems like a misappropriation of an overburdened legal system for tech companies to utilize it as a forum for operational business strategy, or for the USPTO to exploit it to delegate its responsibility for patent oversight.