SciTechTalk: Only lawyers profit as tech giants go to war over patents

By JIM ALGAR, United Press International  |  Dec. 29, 2013 at 6:30 AM
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Technology companies have research and development departments, design staffs, factories to build their products, sales and marketing departments to convince consumers to buy them -- and increasingly, it seems, lawyers to bicker and sue over patents.

Two of the industry's giants -- Apple and Samsung, who between them have made nearly half of the smartphones sold worldwide -- have spent the last couple of years furiously suing and countersuing over claimed patent infringements regarding those smartphones and tablet computers.

In courts in countries around the world, the two tech giants have slugged it out, with Apple winning a favorable ruling in the United States while Samsung prevailed in court cases in South Korea, Japan and Britain.

With billions of dollars of damages sought and dueling requests for sales bans, the companies have racked up more than 50 lawsuits globally, many still ongoing.

Now walking into this arena, and hoping to take advantage of an increasingly litigious atmosphere, is a new kind of player -- the "patent troll."

Also known as a patent assertion entity or a patent holding group, patent trolls don't manufacture products or supply services based on the patents they hold, but rather limit their activity to filing suits against alleged infringers to collect licensing fees, hoping companies would prefer to settle rather face lengthy court trials with unpredictable juries.

The mobile device "patent wars" involving such entities heated up last week as Google filed a lawsuit in California against an Apple- and Microsoft-backed patent group alleging its "patent dragnet" has damaged the Android platform that powers smartphones and tablets.

A litigation campaign by the patent holding group Rockstar Consortium is placing "a cloud on Google's Android platform; threatened Google's business and relationships with its customers and partners, as well as its sales of Nexus-branded Android devices," Google said in a suit filed in California.

In addition to suing Google, Rockstar has filed suits against Asus, HTC, Huawei, LG, Pantech, Samsung and ZTE, all of which offer products closely tied to the Android platform.

Google has alleged Rockstar also contacted a number of companies "to discourage them from continuing to use Google's Android platform in their devices, and to interfere with Google's business relationships."

Hoping to tar Rockstar with the "patent troll" brush, Google in its suit said Rockstar "produces no products and practices no patents."

There's an element of sour grapes operating here: Google had itself attempted to purchase the portfolio of some 6,000 patents from defunct Canadian company Nortell Networks that Rockstar is using as ammunition for its infringement suits.

Google had offered $4.4 billion for the patents covering a wide range of technologies including wireless, wireless 4G, data networking, optical, voice, Internet, and semiconductors, but was outbid by the Rockstar Consortium -- which in addition to Microsoft and Apple includes BlackBerry, Ericsson and Sony -- at $4.5 billion.

Google, in filing suit, is signaling a willingness to let a jury rule that its Android platform and its Nexus 5, Nexus 7 and Nexus 10 devices do not infringe on any of the patents cited by Rockstar in its own litigation against the search giant.

Any time a jury is involved, of course, an element of uncertainty enters the picture.

Perhaps the only certainty in all of this litigious activity is the distraction it must present to the engineers, designers and sales staffs of all the companies involved who would rather their employers concentrated on creating the next round of desirable tech products to offer consumers since lawsuits do a poor job of putting products on store shelves.

Topics: Google
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