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High stakes fueling patent wars

No clear victor as firms fight it out in court

A court in Germany ruled recently that the Apple’s iPhone and iPad tablet violate a Motorola Mobility patent.Lee Jin Man/Associated Press/Associated Press

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.

Last week, the US International Trade Commission said Taiwanese phone maker HTC violated an Apple patent.PICHI CHUANG/REUTERS/REUTERS

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.

Apple has not sued Google directly. Instead, it launched a series of lawsuits against phone manufacturers that use Google’s Android software on their handsets, each with the potential to give Apple more leverage in any future patent lawsuit against Google.

Florian Mueller, an independent expert on technology patents based in Munich, said that small victories will add up over time, ensuring that Android phones would not look as good or work as well as iPhones. The legal wins could result in “a noticeable difference in terms of user experience,’’ Mueller said.

Some of the litigation instigated by Apple could mean major changes in the look and feel of Android phones. In its California patent lawsuit, Apple claimed that Android software infringes its patent on “multitouch’’ technology, which causes a phone’s screen to behave differently depending on how many fingers are pressed against it. Multitouch lets users expand or shrink text and images on their phone’s screen with a two-fingered, “pinching’’ motion. A win for Apple could eliminate this vital feature from Android phones.


Apple has also felt the bite of a patent lawsuit from a competitor. This month, a court in Germany ruled that the iPhone and iPad tablet computer violate a Motorola Mobility patent covering digital radio technology. The ongoing case could help Google fight back against Apple’s attack on Android, because Google is in the process of buying Motorola Mobility for $12.5 billion. The deal will give Google control of thousands of patents held by Motorola, the company that created the first commercial cellphone systems, each patent potential ammunition in future lawsuits.

Meanwhile, British Telecommunications PLC of London filed a massive patent suit last week that, if successful, would strike a devastating blow against Google and Android. The suit, filed in US District Court in Delaware, alleged that a group of Android’s most essential features violate six British Telecommunications patents.

For example, Android phones can automatically decide whether to download data over a cellular network or over a local Wi-Fi network. British Telecommunications claims that it earned a US patent on the underlying technology in 2000. If the company prevails in this suit, instead of having the phone automatically begin downloads from the network the user would have to manually make the choice instead, switching from 3G or 4G cellular data on the road to Wi-Fi at home.


Android phones also contain a personal navigation system that can show the user’s location on a map; British Telecommunications says it patented this concept in 2001. Success in the lawsuit could force Google to eliminate its smartphone navigation and mapping services altogether.

The patent suit could be the most significant Google has ever faced, because the patents not only touch upon features of Android, but also services such as Google Maps and the company’s huge location-based advertising business.

On the other hand, British Telecommunications has tasted defeat in an equally dramatic case. In 2000, the company sued America Online and other Internet service providers for violating its patent on hyperlinks, the technology that makes point-and-click Internet surfing possible. Had the company prevailed, it might have been able to demand royalties from millions of Internet users, but a federal judge dismissed the case two years later.

Microsoft Corp., whose Windows Phone 7 smartphones have failed to catch on with consumers, is also engaged in patent litigation. On Tuesday, the International Trade Commission said that Android phones made by Motorola Mobility violate a Microsoft patent. Microsoft has already reached patent settlements with Android phone makers HTC and Samsung.


James Bessen, an economist and lecturer on patents at the Boston University School of Law, said that since Google lets phone makers use Android software free of charge, “Microsoft is probably making more money from Android phones than Google is.’’

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com.