The mobile patent wars appeared to hit an apex in 2012 when Apple and Samsung slugged it out before a California jury, fulfilling Steve Jobs’ vow to “go nuclear” against Google’s Android operating system. It turns out that was just the opening act.
On Halloween, a consortium of Google rivals — Microsoft(s msft), Apple(s aapl), RIM, Ericsson, and Sony — filed at least 15 lawsuits against Samsung, Huawei, HTC, LG Electronics and other manufacturers that make Android smartphones. The suits say the companies infringe on a range of basic smartphone features, ranging from email to location to hotspot capacities (a total of 7 companies plus Google are named in the 15 cases).
In the case of Samsung, the complaint (embedded below) appears to target the company’s entire product line, referring to “Samsung’s Mobile Communication Devices,” and specifically naming the Samsung Captivate and the Galaxy S III. One lawsuit names Google directly, claiming the company’s core advertising tool, AdWords, violates a patent from 2000.
As for the patents themselves, they are not actual Apple or Microsoft inventions — they once belonged to a defunct Canadian company, Nortel, that collapsed more than a decade ago. The Google rivals acquired them in 2012 when they formed a coalition known as Rockstar Bidco and bought them at auction for $4.5 billion. The auction, in turn, led Google to pay the stunning sum of $12.5 billion to acquire Motorola Mobility, and its large portfolio of patents.
The companies appear to have been threatening each other for a while — the Samsung complaint says Google’s rivals informed them about the patents in mid-2012. Now, the cold war has erupted into a legal nuclear one, as the new lawsuits amount to an effort to cripple the entire Android eco-system.
So, what happens now? Google will likely strike back with lawsuits of its own in an attempt to protect itself and the Android eco-system. The outcome will then be put before a handful of men and women in rural Texas, where the lawsuit were filed, to make a decision by jury. The fact that many of the manufacturers are Asian, not American, could provide Apple et al with a home-field advantage of sorts.
It’s too soon to say who will win, but one thing is certain: consumers will lose. Litigation at this scale costs tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars — money that could instead be based on research or design or something remotely useful. Instead, it will go to law firms, and require engineers and executives to waste days or weeks sitting through legal depositions and courtroom theatrics.
Meanwhile, if Google and the manufacturers lose a jury verdict or agree to pay a settlement, the price they pay will be passed on to consumers through higher handset prices.
The lawsuits are yet another low for America’s troubled patent system. As Joe Mullin of Ars Technica notes, this type of litigation — known as “privateering” — amounts to corporate patent trolling. While the patent system is supposed to encourage innovation by providing temporary monopolies to inventors, it has instead become a distraction and economic deadweight.
You can decide for yourself: here’s the Samsung complaint which invokes a 1998 patent for “Electronic Package Carrying an Electronic Component and Assembly of Mother Board and Electronic Package,” patents from 2000 for “Navigation Tool for Graphical User Interface” and “Internet Protocol” and other long-ago patents from long-dead Nortel.
Clarification: this story has been amended to say that Nortel collapsed (rather than went bankrupt) more than a decade ago; the company became a penny stock in 2002 but its formal bankruptcy occurred in 2009.