Smartphone patent fight: 'World War III'

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Specht cited many spectacular patent battles in U.S. history, including disputes over sewing machine patents in the 1800s and years of lawsuits over the telecommunications and telephone patents that began with Alexander Graham Bell's U.S. Patent No. 174,465 for the telephone more than 100 years ago. There were also desktop computer patent battles between Apple and Microsoft in the 1990s.

The smartphone battles are helping to bring new dimensions to patent disputes.

For instance, intellectual property laws and traditions are different from country to country, Specht noted. "In the U.S., we protect intellectual property rights, which is historically not the same as in Asian countries, where copying was often a form of flattery and not a violation of law," he said.

Also, Specht noted that while the value of the worldwide smartphone market exceeds $100 billion annually, the profit margins are shrinking and thus competition is intensifying. Those factors mean that "gaining an advantage through patent licensing royalties or making it more costly for a competitor are critical," Specht and Perry recently wrote.

Mueller said that the convergence of telecommunications and computing technology inside a smartphone just adds to the number of patents that can come into play, increasing the complexity of the smartphone battles.

"The patent wars in the smartphone space are distinct and of a scale that is without precedent," Mueller said in an email.

Impact on customers and innovation

Some academics and activists believe that such pitched patent battles will eventually push up the cost of smartphones for consumers. The prospect of litigation could also keep smaller innovators from wanting to compete in the smartphone market, they added.

Some patent attorneys disagreed, however, and said they believe the amount of smartphone patent litigation is a sign of a healthy and creative market.

Prof. Jonathan Asking of Brooklyn Law School worries that the lawsuits could stifle innovation. "Unfortunately, for consumers and innovators, every new technology is beset with companies fighting battles in the courtroom at the expense of battles in the marketplace," he said.

"The phone [and related] companies historically and presently spend more money on lobbyists and litigators than almost any other industry," he added. "This is all money and energy that would have been better served on research and development, or at least marketing and competing for consumers in the marketplace."

Eric Von Hippel, a professor of technological innovation at MIT's Sloan School of Management, said via email that several academic researchers are looking into questions about the negative effects of software intellectual property on innovation generally.

"It's a bad scene right now," he recently told The New York Times. "The social value of patents was supposed to be to encourage innovation -- that's what society gets out of it. The net effect is that they decrease innovation, and in the end, the public loses out."

Patent attorneys like Maurice Ross, a partner at Barton, Barton and Plotkin in New York, however, argued that "these cases do not, in my view, reflect a litigation system that it is out of control. Rather, they reflect a rational response among competitors to competition in the marketplace. These suits also reflect reasonable litigation strategies. Sometimes the best defense against charges of patent infringement is to go on the offensive against your competitors."

Ross said that patents are granted to companies as a "reward for innovation. There is absolutely nothing wrong or nefarious about a system that allows a patent owner to reap the value of its patent rights by either licensing the patent and/or enforcing it against infringing competitors."

Specht said vigorous smartphone litigation is a "good sign with respect to innovation." Apple, Google and Oracle, are involved in litigation and are leaders in innovation in wireless communications, he noted.

The smartphone lawsuits "are a really good thing," Specht added. "With so much opportunity and innovation, things are sort of coming to a head. I don't think [the litigation] changes smartphone costs for consumers. Instead, the innovators are grabbing land."

This story, "Smartphone patent fight: 'World War III'" was originally published by Computerworld.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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