2013 in Patent Wars, and Which Companies Will be a-Trollin' in 2014

By Chris Mills on at

Although you probably wouldn't want to sit next to a 'technical patent litigation specialist' at a dinner party, the patent wars of 2013 had almost all the tension and bad acting of an ITV legal drama -- lengthy motions, last-minute filings, down-to-the-wire bans, a corrupt judge or two, and even a last-minute presidential pardon.


Apple vs Samsung

Apple vs Samsung is the undoubted king of the tech patent wars: the two most high-profile manufacturing giants, slugging it out in court for billion-dollar settlements. In 2012, Apple won big in a Californian court: $1,051,855,000 to be exact.

The first half of the 2013 Apple-Samsung saga was all about the fallout from that: of course, in today's legal system, one big court settlement really just means five years of appeals. Things sorta swung in Samsung's favour in March, when US District Judge Lucy Koh (who features rather prominently in a bunch of these cases) knocked $450m off the original settlement, but then also decided on a second jury trial to see how much Samsung should pay Apple for violations on 14 different handsets.

That said, outside of the US legal drama, there was one minor Samsung-Apple scandal here in the UK: Sir Robin Jacob, a judge who in late 2012 forced Apple to make a public apology for being naughty, was hired four months later by Samsung -- an interesting move for a judge who accused Apple of a "lack of integrity".

Things came to a boil in June, when Samsung kicked its US-based whining up to the US International Trade Committee, which works much faster than conventional courts, and crucially, can issue an import ban on products that infringe on patents -- in this case, cellular iPads, the iPhone 3GS and the 4, all of which violated a Samsung technical patent to do with radios. Score Samsung!

Only, no. The American President himself, worried about a future where America can't import two-year-old smartphones, vetoed the ITC ban on the grounds that it damaged national interests.

Obama wasn't quite so nice when, on August 9th, the ITC banned Samsung products (in particular the Galaxy Nexus) from import, on the grounds that they violated Apple products. Of course, given that the Galaxy Nexus was by this point a little long in the tooth (and massively undercut by the superior Nexus 4), this was more petty point-scoring than any kind of tangible victory for Apple.

Rounding the year out was the conclusion of that second jury trial to settle damages from the original 2012 patent showdown: the jury found in favour of Apple, awarding them an extra $290m on top of the $650m owed from the original settlement, leaving Samsung a couple million better off in damages terms, but probably with fairly hefty legal bills.

Thankfully, this year should (fingers crossed) see far less legal meddling and fewer pesky bans: just last week, Apple and Samsung CEOs announced that they'd sit down for some (hopefully Jeremy Kyle Show-style) face-to-face mediation, to try and resolve issues without suing the living daylights out of each other again.


Rockstar vs Android

By far the most important patent case of 2013 is that of Rockstar. This is a bizarre consortium formed by unlikely allies Apple, Microsoft, Blackberry, and Sony, among others.

Rockstar is the classic patent troll. Formed after the demise of Canadian telecoms company Nortel in 2011, it won a bidding war with Google for Nortel's vast back catalogue  of patents. It's now put that to good use, suing Google, Samsung and a string of other Android handset manufacturers for patent infringement.

In the case of the hardware manufacturers, it's the sort of generalised patents we're used to seeing -- things like "integrated message centre" and "navigation tool for graphical user interface".

For Google, however, the patent infringement cuts right to the heart of the core business -- search. More specifically, it's a patent to do with targeting ads based on a user's search terms, which is right at the heart of Google's AdWords search business. Worse for the Goog, the usual line of defence in such patent cases -- claiming that the patents are too broad-reaching and totally valueless -- is rendered fairly useless, as Google demonstrated the value of Rockstar's patent arsenal when it previously bid over £2.5 billion for the patents.

In all likelihood, then, Google will end up ponying up to license Rockstar's patents at some point in the future, although given Google's defensive legal talent and the glacial pace, not to mention their oodles of spare cash, don't expect to be forced to Binging things any time soon.


Nokia vs HTC 

Although Nokia might be tottering around on its last legs financially, it's at least got the advantage of having been around for a while, which means a fair few patents stashed away in back closets. It's recently been winning court cases based on a few of those in the UK, with HTC bearing the brunt.

The first salvo was a tussle over microphones made by a third-party company, STMicro. Nokia had a year-long exclusivity contract over the microphones, which it claimed featured noise-cancelling technology pioneered by Nokia. Quite logically, therefore, HTC was banned in April from using the microphones -- quite a pickle, since they featured in the recently-launched HTC One. HTC was pretty quick on replacing the parts, preventing any broader-reaching financial sanctions or import ban, but it didn't help with the chaos that was the launch of the HTC One, and possibly the fairly poor sales it's received since.

But microphones weren't the only headache. Nokia's long used its patent for a "modular structure for a transmitter and a mobile station" to win cash, notably over Apple, and BlackBerry in 2011. Both of those cases were settled out of court, but HTC decided to fight all the way through.

Unfortunately for HTC, Broadcom and Qualcomm chips in a range of HTC phones -- including the One and the One Mini -- were found to infringe, and an injunction against the import and sale of handsets was handed down by a judge. Luckily for HTC, the Court of Appeals granted a stay of the injunction until a full trial, which will be held in 2014. For HTC, this looks like a delaying tactic -- the follow-up to the One, coming in February, presumably won't infringe Nokia's patent, so any injuction will become pointless, and HTC will end up only paying damages to Nokia.

That's not to say that the case is insignificant, though -- Nokia's also suing LG, Samsung and Sony for infringements on the same patent in a range of countries, and the precedent set here will probably lead those companies to settle with Nokia -- not a bad bit of cash for Nokia. Expect to see further HTC-Nokia court cases and settlements over the course of the year, then, probably with a sprinkling of injunctions and last-minute stays to keep things interesting.