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The Mobile Patent Lawsuit Wars: A Dose of Sanity?

They say that, if you want a potentially important news story buried, release it on a Friday afternoon. By the time the details reach the mainstream press and popular online outlets, the workday is over, and potential readers are paying more attention to enjoying their weekends. Of course that assumes they aren’t actually working weekends.

So maybe that’s why the announcement of a truce between Apple and Google over patent issues didn’t get quite the attention you might have expected considering how this intellectual property war has played out around the world in recent years. Of course, the $49 billion merger between AT&T and DirecTV might have received more attention.

Regardless, the Apple/Google deal focused mainly on the patent skirmishes involving Motorola Mobility. Since Google is sending that unsuccessful division packing to Lenovo, it clearly seemed a good time to clear the air. Besides, it’s not that Apple hasn’t settled with other mobile companies over patent matters. Two of the notable settlements involve HTC and Nokia, and, as you know, the latter’s mobile division is now under the Microsoft umbrella. Besides, Apple and Microsoft have had a relatively peaceful relationship since a 1997 intellectual property agreement. The worst you hear are the usual competitive boasts.

It’s notable that Apple and Google promise to work towards patent reform — and it’s sorely needed, particularly in the U.S. — but there was nothing about cross-licensing. Regardless, it’s nice to see these legal skirmishes die down.

But there’s still Samsung, which has been engaged in an intense patent war with Apple for several years, despite being one of the largest suppliers of components to the latter. I always wondered how such transactions work, although it’s true the two Samsung divisions operate with separate management.

During the two trials at a California Federal Court, Judge Lucy Koh has urged the two companies to just make a deal and clear her court calendar. That she parcels the complaints into tiny, bite-sized pieces with severe limits on the time allowed for testimony, and lawyer openings and closings, it’s very obvious that she is only too happy to minimize the issues under dispute and get it over with.

So far, Apple and Samsung haven’t been able to strike a deal, but in the wake of the Google deal, there’s was a published report Monday in The Korea Times that the two companies were back at the bargaining table to try to reach an out-of-court settlement. But the publication retracted the story the very next day, blaming Apple for the alleged refusal to engage in settlement talks.

But Samsung surely knows by now that Apple is not going to back down and, stung by having to pay north of a billion dollars for patent infringement, with the risk of some products being barred from sale, it would make sense for Samsung to bring this sorry affair to an end as fast as possible.

Alas, the latest report out of California indicates that Apple and Samsung reported to Judge Koh that they tried reach an agreement earlier this month but failed yet again. Eventually, I suspect they will have to get together and perhaps strike a deal similar to the ones made with HTC and Nokia. There will be cross-licensing where appropriate, some money will change hands, and everyone will agree to play nice with one another.

Of course, being charged with theft of intellectual property is nothing new for Samsung. The company is considered to be a chronic offender, reportedly deliberately copying technology from other companies, building derivative products and profiting from them while the legal issues play out in the courts. At the end of the day, Samsung may just settle at the last minute, after wearing down the opposition as long as possible.

That, however, isn’t going to work with Apple. Besides, facing the potential loss of billions of dollars in sales for components, Samsung is downright stupid. The features cribbed from the iPhone and iPad can be altered. Maybe it won’t be so pretty and intuitive, but there are workable solutions that don’t appear to step on someone else’s patents.

Yes, it’s true that Steve Jobs promised to go “thermonuclear” because he felt Google stole Apple’s inventions when Android was released. Certainly Tim Cook has loyally followed through on protecting the company’s inventions. But years of expensive trials and hearings have really accomplished almost nothing other than to keep high-paid intellectual property attorneys busy.

Apple has made its point. They will fight what they perceive to be patent violations, and it’s high time to move on. But it’s also true that the claims from some media pundits that these patent trials have somehow hurt Apple’s ability to innovate just aren’t true. Apple is spending more than ever on R&D, and has purchased more and more companies to acquire technology. I don’t pretend to know what sort of new product categories Apple is prepared to enter later this year, but none of those products are in any way being delayed because of those lawsuits. To suggest otherwise is absurd.

Meantime, if Apple and Samsung do eventually make their deal, and a settlement doesn’t appear so hopeful right now, maybe the tech industry will work together to address the ongoing abuses to the patent system. I’m thinking particularly of those patent trolls who acquire someone’s inventions perhaps at a reduced price, build absolutely nothing, but profit from suing anyone in sight who might be using something that resembles those inventions. That’s big time abuse and it needs to stop.