Whatever your stance on the current state of patent law—it’s essential to protecting intellectual property, it’s detrimental to innovation, or something in between—the fact is that there’s a whole lot of patent-related activity happening in the tech sector right now, much of it to do with mobile devices.
Google’s recently-announced acquisition of Motorola Mobility, for instance, seems like a good fit from a product development perspective—Google gets a mobile handset maker for Android and a set-top box maker for Google TV—but the move appears to have just as much, if not more, to do with stockpiling some 17,000+ Motorola patents as well.
And it turns out that Google’s using some of its patents to protect more than just its own skin: The company recently sold nine of its patents to HTC (which makes Android handsets) “to pursue new infringement claims against Apple,” reports Bloomberg. Apple has filed a couple patent infringement cases of its own against HTC, one of which it’s already won.
HTC’s two lawsuits against Apple—one ongoing, one new—contend infringement of the nine patents HTC recently purchased from Google, and extend beyond mobile devices to include features found in Apple’s computers and iTunes software as well.
The Foss Patents blog has a detailed rundown of the actual patents, which range from “a method and apparatus for zoomed display of characters entered from a telephone keypad” to “a technique allowing a status bar user response on a portable device graphic user interface” to “a method and apparatus for over-the-air upgrading of radio modem application software,” and several others detailing even more obscure features.
Meanwhile, it appears Apple may have taken its battle against Samsung into Japan as well. After being granted an injunction to block Samsung tablet sales in Europe based on patent infringement claims, Apple is reportedly “seeking the suspension of sales of Galaxy S and its sequel S II smartphones and the Galaxy Tab 7 in Japan,” according to Reuters, which quotes “sources close to the matter,” who say the first hearing was held yesterday.
Microsoft benefits from the Android patent mess as well, even though it has nothing to do with the Android platform. It does, however, own patents which need to be licensed by certain manufacturers of Android devices. Just this morning, it published two press releases announcing that it had signed patent license agreements with Acer and with ViewSonic.
Both releases basically read the same, with Microsoft saying it’s pleased that Acer and ViewSonic are “taking advantage of our industrywide licensing program established to help companies address Android’s IP issues,” followed by voicing its support for such patent agreements, calling them “another example of the important role IP plays in ensuring a healthy and vibrant IT ecosystem.”
Not everyone’s as high on patents, though. One of the more outspoken critics in the tech industry is Mark Cuban, who summarizes the entire situation rather succinctly on his blog:
“It’s bad for my little companies. It’s horrific for bigger companies. It’s so bad that major tech companies are buying big collections of patents not because they want to own the intellectual property but rather because they want the ability to respond to patent lawsuits with a lawsuit of their own. It’s like playing a game of thermo nuclear war. If all sides have ‘nuclear patents’ they can respond to patent litigation with equal force. In other words, if you have enough ‘nuclear patents’ no one will sue you for patent infringement because you have enough power to respond in kind. It’s crazy and costing this country jobs.”
And so we get the patent-centric idea of mutually assured destruction that you may have noticed floating around the news headlines lately. What’s the end game? Patent law reform? Not likely, at least not in the near term. We’ll likely see these types of lawsuits escalate, with more and more “rent-a-patent” lawsuits, as ZDNet calls them. This latest HTC-Apple case is “the first time Google’s openly and directly assisted an Android OEM in a lawsuit,” says This Is My Next’s Nilay Patel, a lawyer turned tech blogger.
Patel raises a very interesting question, as well: “If these nine patents are strong enough for HTC to assert them against Apple in an attempt to change the balance in its ongoing litigation, it’s worth asking why Google didn’t litigate them against Apple in an attempt to secure a blanket settlement that covers all of Android for the entire ecosystem.”