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Making Sense of the Handset Patent Plays

The latest on who is suing whom with what patents acquired from which companies as we attempt to navigate the complex IP world

Sarah Thomas

September 9, 2011

3 Min Read
Making Sense of the Handset Patent Plays

Microsoft Corp. (Nasdaq: MSFT) has a slew of licensing deals; Google (Nasdaq: GOOG) may soon have Motorola Mobility LLC ; and Apple Inc. (Nasdaq: AAPL) has its own patent portfolio large enough to scare any handset maker. Patent power plays are turning the mobile market into a complex and highly litigious space.

The handset market appears to be overrun with lawsuits, but consultant and FOSS Patents blogger Florian Mueller says that litigation is the exception, and licensing is the norm. Every day, there are deals being done behind closed doors. But, lately, as competition has increased, mobile device makers have taken it to the courtroom. (See Handset Makers Air Patent Grievances.)

"A lot of people think a patent is the right to do something, but it's the right to sue someone for doing something," Mueller says. "If you look at what a patent covers, it's an idea or concept. If you implement that idea, you may violate 10 other patents."

Since Android is a relatively new project in an established market, it has to succumb to licensing fees more often than not. The question for Google's ecosystem is whether it can make up for lost time by acquiring Moto's 17,000-patent deep portfolio. (See Google & Moto: Beyond the Patently Obvious.)

It won't be an easy fight. Android handset makers are facing patent battles on two fronts: against Apple, which does not have a track record of licensing, wanting instead to block companies from selling devices or cause them to modify designs, and against Microsoft, which simply wants to collect as much in licensing fees as it can.

Thursday's news that both Acer Inc. and ViewSonic Corp. have signed on as Microsoft licensees rather than wait for Google's supposed shield doesn't bode well for the Android ecosystem. Likewise, Moto hasn't been immune to lawsuits after the merger was announced either.

Patents & posturing
Here's a snapshot of the handset makers' latest shake-ups and patent holdings that suggest the patent warring won't be over anytime soon.

  • Microsoft has exerted its patent power to reach licensing deals with several companies including High Tech Computer Corp. (HTC) (Taiwan: 2498), Velocity Micro, Itronix, and now Acer and ViewSonic for patents related to Android smartphones and tablets -- and Chrome devices too for ViewSonic.

    Microsoft is currently suing Motorola and Barnes & Noble, amongst others, for patent infringement. (See Microsoft Takes Moto Back to Court and What Google-Moto Means for Microsoft.)

  • Samsung Corp. has about 100,000 patents worldwide, and 28,000 in the U.S. alone, Mueller estimates. The South Korean company is currently engaged in around 20 lawsuits with Apple in 12 countries, with the latest activity in Japan. (See Apple Rains on Japan's LTE Tab Parade, Apple vs. Android Patent Spat Goes Global, Samsung Tries to Block Apple Sales in the US, Apple Escalates Samsung Lawsuit and Apple Sues Samsung for iCopying.)

  • HTC is suing Apple, borrowing Google's patents it won less than a year ago. Bloomberg, citing U.S. Patent and Trademark Office records, says that Google is lending HTC four patents originating from Motorola, three from Openwave Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: OPWV) and two from Palm Inc. . HTC also has some patents of its own through several recent acquisitions. (See Apple Wins Patent Victory Over HTC, Google Slams Android Patent Attackers, HTC Buys a Patent Power Play and Apple Sues HTC.)

  • Nokia Corp. (NYSE: NOK) has around 11,000 patent families, Mueller says, which suggests one invention patented in multiple jurisdictions. It is one of the only companies to have won against Apple, which now pays the Finnish handset maker licensing fees. (See Nokia Fires Volley at Apple's iPhone .)

    — Sarah Reedy, Senior Reporter, Light Reading Mobile

About the Author(s)

Sarah Thomas

Director, Women in Comms

Sarah Thomas's love affair with communications began in 2003 when she bought her first cellphone, a pink RAZR, which she duly "bedazzled" with the help of superglue and her dad.

She joined the editorial staff at Light Reading in 2010 and has been covering mobile technologies ever since. Sarah got her start covering telecom in 2007 at Telephony, later Connected Planet, may it rest in peace. Her non-telecom work experience includes a brief foray into public relations at Fleishman-Hillard (her cussin' upset the clients) and a hodge-podge of internships, including spells at Ingram's (Kansas City's business magazine), American Spa magazine (where she was Chief Hot-Tub Correspondent), and the tweens' quiz bible, QuizFest, in NYC.

As Editorial Operations Director, a role she took on in January 2015, Sarah is responsible for the day-to-day management of the non-news content elements on Light Reading.

Sarah received her Bachelor's in Journalism from the University of Missouri-Columbia. She lives in Chicago with her 3DTV, her iPad and a drawer full of smartphone cords.

Away from the world of telecom journalism, Sarah likes to dabble in monster truck racing, becoming part of Team Bigfoot in 2009.

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