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Smartphone patent fight: 'World War III'

Matt Hamblen | May 5, 2011
Smartphone-related patent infringement lawsuits Apple and Samsung recently filed against each other are but the latest in an escalating series of Android and open-source-related complaints filed by major corporations over the past 18 months.

Specht and Perry noted that to date there is no patent pool for smartphones specifically but added that a group called the Open Patent Alliance has created patent pools for WiMax, LTE and 4G patents. At the same time, private entities such as Sisvel, Via Licensing and MPEG LA are creating LTE patent pools.

Clearly, there is likely to be plenty of ongoing legal positioning by mobile device makers beyond disputes over Android.

The financial burdens

Patent attorneys claim that the costs of patent litigation are relatively low compared to the cost of developing and marketing a smartphone.

"No [major company] in these disputes will be stymied by the litigation expense," said Delaney, who noted that the cost for a single patent case typically ranges from $5 million to $10 million. "That's an order of magnitude less than the sales for a product. And while it's a burden, it's a burden companies are willing to bear."

Blogger-activist Mueller, however, predicted that patent licensing costs will "soon become the single largest cost factor for those building smartphones."

Why the glut of Android suits?

Android patent lawsuits are currently at the centerpiece of the smartphone wars, partly because the open-source software has quickly become dominant. Android late in 2010 became the largest smartphone platform -- and is expected to hold that position for several years, according to Gartner and IDC.

The very nature of Android, as an open-source operating system, has led to its global expansion. But the open-source nature of the software also leaves it somewhat defenseless, Mueller has argued.

Google apparently believes that an Android program written with a General Public License "can just cut out the copyrightable parts," Mueller recently noted in a blog. Oracle, in a Java-related lawsuit against Google, has argued that any company that treats a copyright this way "may be similarly arrogant and reckless when patents are concerned."

Mueller concluded that Google's approach "exposes its entire ecosystem to legal risks."

Mueller also called Google's patent portfolio "far too weak for what's undertaken in connection with Android" and argued that Google needs more cross-licensing agreements with other IT-related software and hardware makers. "This is a serious strategic weakness, and it's in no small part responsible for the Android patent mess," Mueller concluded.

Early jury rules against Google

Google recently lost a case that could have major implications in the smartphone wars, and on open-source technology in general. In that case, Bedrock Computer Technologies filed suit in 2009 contending that Google had infringed on one of its Linux-related patents.

A federal court jury in the Eastern District of Texas on April 15 ruled that Google must pay Bedrock $5 million for past infringement on its patent on the Linux kernel Google uses in software that runs in its server farm.


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