Patent News | "High stakes fueling patent wars"

No clear victor as firms fight it out in court

By: Hiawatha Bray
Category: Patent News

A patent lawsuit won last week by iPhone maker Apple Inc. represented a single victory in a global legal war, with giant corporations fighting for control of the technologies behind smartphones and computers, potentially resulting in less appealing devices or higher prices for consumers.

Technology firms like Google Inc., Samsung Corp., Microsoft Corp., and especially Apple - which is one of the most active combatants - are embroiled in about 100 patent lawsuits in at least 10 countries. The stakes are high: potential domination of the multibillion-dollar market for smartphones, tablet computers, and the software that runs them. One successful lawsuit could generate millions in patent licensing fees for the victor, or it could force a rival firm to modify the way its devices work - even removing features users treasure.

So far, no company has landed a knockout blow. But Apple, creator of the popular iPhone, has scored a number of victories over the makers of phones using Google’s competing Android software. The result: a series of small, but significant limitations on the functions of Android phones.

Last Monday, the US International Trade Commission said Taiwanese phone maker HTC violated an Apple patent covering a relatively minor feature: the ability of a user to add an e-mailed phone number to his list of contacts with one touch.

The ruling applies only to phones made by HTC, but because the feature is built into many Android phones from other manufacturers, it could ultimately cause all of them to eliminate the feature.

HTC has said it will comply with the ruling by eliminating the feature from its phones. But a Google official, speaking on background, said his company has no immediate plans to drop the feature from its Android software.

And that is one small example of what control over a single patent can mean. Apple has also sued Samsung Corp. in California over a patented iPhone feature that makes the phone’s list of contacts seem to “bounce’’ when the user scrolls to the bottom. Samsung’s Android phones used to do the same thing, but even though the case is still pending, Google has already changed the software, replacing the bounce effect with an orange glow.

In another example with far greater potential effect than the removal of a simple feature, Apple in August won an injunction in a Dutch court that would have banned the sale of several Samsung smartphones in Europe. The court ruled that Samsung had infringed an Apple patent governing the way pictures are displayed in the phone’s photo gallery. Again, Samsung had incorporated a “bounce’’ effect similar to Apple’s when users dragged images across the screen. Samsung has since changed the photo gallery software to comply with the court’s ruling.