This week, one of the cable TV news outlets ran a short story about Apple suing Samsung once again over patent issues. But it was just the latest of many legal skirmishes that have been going on almost since the first iPhone debuted. Sometimes you wonder if any of these companies actually have time to sell products, because they’re so busy contending with lawsuits.
There was even a published report recently that pegged Apple’s legal bill, so far, at over $100 million, although that has not been officially confirmed. But since the lawsuits are being litigated in a number of countries around the world, and Apple no doubt uses the best and brightest lawyers in those countries, I wouldn’t be surprised if that total was close to the truth.
It appears the legal wars are being played on two fronts. First involves so-called FRAND patents. The term stands for “fair, reasonable, and non-discriminatory terms,” which generally involve licensing industry standard patents to different companies at, as the term implies, “fair” rates. The argument here is that Apple is supposedly being asked to pay a larger fee per unit to license some of those technologies.
Perhaps the most telling example is Motorola, since they own patents to some of the key wireless technologies. But in one curious example, Motorola is reportedly seeking separate payments for Apple’s use of Qualcomm chips that incorporate Motorola patents. Since the price Apple pays for those chips already includes the intellectual property fees, so why would Motorola want to go to a third party and ask for more?
Understand, this whole patent business is confusing, contradictory, and there are so many gray areas that it’s hard to know how courts or regulatory authorities might rule on any individual case. These issues even confound lawyers, so I’m not about to attempt to sort the issues out.
The other issues involves patents Apple has been granted for exclusive features they’ve created for their products. A recent example is “data detectors” feature on the Mac OS and iOS, where you click (or tap) on an item, such as a phone number or shipper’s tracking number, to get relevant information about that piece of data. I use it all the time to track packages direct from emails containing the shipping information, or to add someone’s contact info to Address Book.
Apple’s genius is in devising a way for the OS to figure out what the data means, and that it is most always right is a tribute to great engineering. Having gotten a patent for this invention, Apple has already succeeded in winning an infringement case against HTC.
In the latest legal filing, Apple is going after the Samsung Galaxy Nexus, the flagship product for Google’s Android 4.0 platform. That’s the one called “Ice Cream Sandwich.” Another invention cited in Apple’s lawsuit is the slide to unlock feature that first appeared in the original iPhone. If the courts decide that data detectors, slide to unlock and other key Apple patents have been violated, it isn’t just Samsung who may be forced to pay damages, or remove the features from all infringing products. Google might be forced to reengineer Android 4.0 as well, something that will impact all future devices that might incorporate that OS.
All right, I’m not going to say Apple doesn’t have the right to protect their intellectual property and attempt to stop other companies from using the fruits of their creativity. That’s one reason why there are patents, and you have to think that if these other tech companies have smart enough engineers, they ought to be able to find workarounds or develop their own exclusive features. You also wonder whether Google understood the consequences of allegedly cribbing features from the iOS, or maybe their legal teams advised them that they could find enough gray areas in the patents to emerge victorious. Or, perhaps, pay licensing fees and be done with it.
Of course, Apple isn’t inclined to want to license proprietary OS technologies, although they have made some features industry standard and even open source. For example, the open source WebKit is used as the rendering engine for the majority of mobile Web browsers on the planet, and even the popular Google Chrome browser.
By the same token, Apple’s competitors have the right to patent their own inventions and demand royalties for their use. That’s only fair. What’s more, if a company doesn’t do what’s necessary to enforce their patents, they might as well give them away.
It has certainly been suggested that patents are granted far too easily, that many so-called inventions are simply minor alterations of existing products or features, or are so general that protection shouldn’t be granted. But changing those laws is not within the power of any individual company, or even all of them if decided to work together to push for more equitable patent systems around the globe.
What makes the whole messy affair even more confusing is the fact that it may take years to resolve the lawsuits over any individual patent. During that time, new patents and updated technologies may make those original products or features largely irrelevant.
Worse, any hope for a fast resolution is little or none. If anything, that $100 million that Apple may have spent on legal fees may only be the tip of the iceberg as these legal actions grow in number and intensity. If nothing else, I can imagine that some startup companies might just want to go into another business rather than cope with the danger of potential intellectual property lawsuits, or at least make sure they have enough venture capital to pay their lawyers.