The Supreme Court may have laid down the law on silly software patents, but its words don’t mean much down in East Texas, where a federal judge just blessed a patent troll’s controversial campaign to attack a range of devices that use Google’s Android operating system.
In a ruling on Monday, U.S. District Judge Rodney Gilstrap refused to grant Google’s request to throw out claims that messaging and notification patents on Samsung’s Nexus and Galaxy devices violate patents dating from 1997. The claims were filed in November by Rockstar, a shell company that was stitched together from the carcass of bankrupt telecom firm Nortel, and is now controlled by Google rivals, including Apple and Microsoft.
Google had asked the Texas court to throw out the claims based on Alice Corp, a 9-0 decision from June in which the Supreme Court held that taking familiar ideas and implementing them through a computer should not qualify for patent protection. The Rockstar patents, including one titled “System and method for notifying a user of an incoming communication event,” would seem to fall under this category, but Judge Gilstrap disagreed:
The Court concluded in [an earlier] opinion that Claim 5 of the ‘131 Patent is not directed at an unpatentable “abstract idea.” The Court sees no reason to change its mind. The Supreme Court’s recent treatment of § 101 in Alice Corp … makes no suggestion that the extensively limited and concrete processes outlined in Claim 5 are unpatentable. On this ground, then, Google’s motion must be denied. (my edits)
The ruling is hardly a surprise given that Judge Gilstrap rides herd in the district of East Texas, which has made patent trolling a full-blown cottage industry. As Joe Mullin of Ars Technica and others have shown, a disproportionate amount of cases keep landing in Gilstrap’s court, where patent-friendly juries are happy to keep the litigation train rolling along — and help ensure local hotels and restaurants stay brimming with out-of-town lawyers.
The upshot is that Google is now pinned in East Texas, where it faces the unpalatable choice of paying off the Rockstar troll or else rolling the dice on a Texas jury. Meanwhile, Google is also tangling with Rockstar in California, where it has asked a judge to declare that its devices like the Nexus 5 and Nexus 10 don’t infringe the troll’s patents. That case is still mired in procedural issues.
For consumers, the Rockstar ruling could lead to more expensive mobile devices if Android device makers have to pass along the costs of paying the patent troll. The ruling may also embolden Rockstar, whose trolling campaign is reportedly targeting hundreds of Silicon Valley companies.
Companies like Rockstar, which pays once-proud Nortel engineers in Canada to pick apart old devices for trolling opportunities, also got a boost earlier this year when Senate Democrats killed a bipartisan patent reform bill.
Here’s Judge Gilstrap’s ruling, which was spotted by Law360 (sub required):