Blog Post

Motorola Only the Latest of Apple’s Many Legal Woes

Stay on Top of Enterprise Technology Trends

Get updates impacting your industry from our GigaOm Research Community
Join the Community!

Today, Motorola (s mot) filed suit regarding three complaints against Apple (s aapl) over patent infringements. The complaints deal with antenna design and other associated smartphone technologies covered in 18 patents held by Motorola. According to Kirk Daily (via CNNMoney), Motorola Mobility’s corporate VP of intellecual property, legal action was a last resort taken after licensing negotiations with Apple (s aapl) broke down.

But that’s hardly the end of Apple’s legal problems. The company was slapped with $625 million in legal penalties this week for infringing on three patents, at a rate of $208 million per infraction. Obviously, Apple’s already challenged the verdict, as would any corporation, but the ruling is blood in the water for Cupertino’s foes.

The case was brought by Mirror Worlds, and presents a legitimate case, not just the usual patent trolling fare. Mirror Worlds, a company founded by Yale computer science professor David Gelernter, claimed it held patents infringed upon by Apple through its Time Machine and Cover Flow features, among others. Mirror Worlds held patents regarding automated backups and flipping through digital album covers that are remarkably similar to the tech used in today’s Macs and iOS devices.

The verdict was rendered by jury in a Texas district court, and would represent one of the largest ever awards in patent suit history in the U.S., if upheld. Even a $625 million pay out won’t really dent Apple’s $40 billion on hand, but that’s not where the real hurt lies.

Apple is currently embroiled in a large number of legal disputes over patents. Here’s a list of some of the more high-profile cases:

  • Microsoft (s msft) co-founder Paul Allen’s company Interval Licensing filed suit against Apple, along with Google (s goog), Facebook, Yahoo (s yhoo) and others in August for infringing on a number of patents relating to fundamental web technology developed in the early 90s.
  • Kodak (s ek) accused Apple in January of this year of using on of its digital imaging patents regarding previews in the iPhone, along with smartphone rival RIM (s rimm). Apple is also singled out for two more infringement suits from the camera pioneer, including one regarding the ability to process images of differing resolutions.
  • Apple, along with Google and others, is named in a suit brought by NTP, a patent holding firm, in June 2010. The suit concerns patents held by NTP about wireless email delivery, and an earlier suit against RIM resulted in a $612 million settlement.
  • Perhaps the most highly publicized, Nokia (s nok) is suing Apple over 10 patents it owns regarding wireless handset technology. The suit came after negotiations regarding licensing fees with Apple broke down. Apple is countersuing over 13 of its own patents.
  • Tune Hunter named Apple along with a whole slew of others in its 2009 suit regarding music recognition tech. Tune Hunter holds a patent for a music identification and purchasing system that is says resembles far too closely the tech in use by Shazam.

This isn’t an exhaustive list, but it’s representative of the kind of heat Apple’s been facing since becoming a top dog in the tech realm. Now that one of these efforts has hit paydirt, it’s unlikely the tide will be stemmed anytime soon. The smell of money is a heady intoxicant.

As unseemly as it might be, Apple has the right idea with its countersuit of Nokia. The only way to deal with this kind of issue is to defend your patents vigorously, or face losing the farm. While things definitely won’t get better in the near future for Apple as its star continues to rise, whether or not this latest verdict is upheld will determine if things get much worse, and possibly begin to have an impact on the company’s ability to do business.

Related content from GigaOM Pro (sub req’d):

11 Responses to “Motorola Only the Latest of Apple’s Many Legal Woes”

  1. Sam Katz

    A few issues here. One they purchased Cover Flow (the software) from another company who I believe bore the same name as the product. This shows a good faith effort to resolve any IP issues. Whether that will help them is another matter.

    I completely and entirely reject the notion that Apple should be sued for patent violations by third-party app developers like Shazam. Apple specifically has clauses in its developer app store agreement to indemnify itself against this, and a process for handling complaints. Apple should request and be granted summary dismissal.

  2. kwyjibo

    “The case was brought by Mirror Worlds, and presents a legitimate case, not just the usual patent trolling fare.”

    A legitimate case? A patent which controls how music files are displayed? This is only a legitimate case because the patent system is broken, and the USPTO are the biggest bunch of incompetent meatheads to be employed by the government.

    They’ve granted a patent to an idea. They’ve granted a patent which is analogous to flipping through a record collection in real life. That isn’t software, it’s not some unique bespoke system, it’s not an invention, it’s an idea.

    The USPTO are patenting your thoughts.

  3. Sick and Tired

    I get the whole point that litigation costs lots of money, and the lawyers are the only ones that really make out in the end. That being said, big companies should also properly investigate the patent environment they are entering and negotiate with any patent holders for their innovations.

    The Nokia case is particularly interesting, as everyone else pays Nokia for the technologies under dispute…and they are radio-related (something Apple does not have history of knowing anything about).

    Apple patents gestures. That’s not even technology…they are patenting how we physically interact with the device. And they would sue to protect that…I’m sure. (In fact, I believe that is one of the countersuits against Nokia.) Apple has made out very well with their innovations, but they should be willing to pay up in good faith for others’ work.

    While I am sick and tired of reading about all of these never-ending patent disputes, I do think that Apple seems to be a bit of a free-rider here.

  4. Apple has tried to take a free ride. The case shows how much easier and cheaper it is to make products if one doesn’t care about others IPR. Maybe all companies should follow the lead. Just make good products and, if successfull, wear a helmet.
    Biggest downside of patenting is the slow-down effect. Still, I believe a company should be prepared to pay for the others IPR used.

  5. Gee,

    Sounds like the “look and feel” lawsuit that Apple filed against MS and Windows 2 is back. Apple could not get that to stick. How can this company patent the idea of images and pixels on Cover Flow? I would have this case heard out of Texas if I were Apple. Sounds like the judge is a good old PC boy.

  6. Seems to me that the litigious patent environment in America is a huge advantage for companies in countries with weak intellectual property enforcement. Software patents are especially ripe for duplication.

    A small example – While travelling through China, our friendly taxi driver loaded up his GPS system to get directions to the next city. The entire UI looked exactly like an Iphone, complete with high resolution IOS icons and animations.

    While America keeps bickering about the ‘value’ of each patent, other countries are duplicating these features en-masse to provide better product experiences and services to their customers. If the consumer is the ultimate recipient the utility/value of a patent, then Chinese (and the rest) consumers get a better deal than the rest of the western world.
    Btw, I only use China as an example because I visited recently. Lots of other countries have pretty weak Intellectual Property protection.

    • There should be a time limit on filing a infringement lawsuit against a successful product/idea.

      Sort of like filing a DBA and letting the name run for a month or two. If nobody contest your name it is yours.

      These greedy people throwing and fishing lawsuits at successful products only makes it harder for new innovation from that company!

  7. The last bluetooth car kit that I bought from Motorola was a complete waste of plastic. I was going to exchange it, thinking maybe it was bad, or maybe try a different model from Motorola. Then what made me think they suck and decide to just return it for my money was the new lawsuit(s) against Apple. Come on! There are a lot of people out there that enjoy Apple products, and still buy (or should I say were buying) Motorola products. Guess what Motorola? You just LOST a lot more customers. Not such a smart move now, is it?

  8. This just shows how insane this patent thing has become. Apple has big pockets, but I can see how frightening this is for small companies, to a degree that can stop innovation. Before developing any software they will have to search decades of patent filings just to be sure no one has ever done something similar. Otherwise, as soon as they reach a moderate success, there will be a bunch of lawyers knocking on their door.