Is the Mobile Patent War Finally Coming to an End?

In the fast-growing market of smartphone and tablet software development, big companies including Apple, Microsoft, Google, Motorola and Samsung have been rushing to patent software that they have not yet developed. When another company comes along with that software, legal action is taken to stop them selling their products.

Last year we wrote about the law suit over patents by Motorola where they stopped imports of iPhones and iPads by Apple to Germany.

The saga’s been back in the news this week, and it looks like the courts are getting bored – Apple and Samsung bosses have been ordered to resolve their messy patent disputes between themselves. This is great news for smaller-scale developers – and consumers.

It seems that many mobile software patents have ceased to be about protecting intellectual property, and become more about making life difficult for competitors. By taking the dispute out of the courtroom, these big companies will be forced to co-operate and – hopefully – competition will become fair again.

Phone tablet companies software patent wars

The Battle So Far

By looking at just a few examples of big company behaviour with regards to patents, we can see why courts are getting tired.

Google Acquisition of Motorola

Google bought Motorola Mobility for $12.5billion in August 2011, thus acquiring the rights to a vast amount of patents owned by the brand. Whilst Google has not, to date, sued anyone for breach of copyright; getting ownership of these patents was significant to the advancement of the Android platform.

Google’s CEO, Larry Page, said on the Google blog that the deal allows Android to defend itself from “anti-competitive patent attacks”, i.e. over patents from companies such as Apple and Microsoft.

Mobile developer patent disputes, e.g. 'slide-to-unlock'Apple vs. Motorola –Slide-to-Unlock

Apple won a law suit in Germany against Motorola this year, over Motorola’s ‘copying’ of the patented ‘slide-to-unlock’ feature. Motorola had to implement a new unlocking system, but claimed there would be no effect on sales.

Google and Oracle

This month, Larry Page was in court with Google accused of stealing bits of the Java platform to build its Android software. He insisted that Google had only used the open parts of the Java software (“we were very careful about what information we used and what we did not use”) – and that a previous interest in partnering with Sun Microsystems (now owned by Oracle) was irrelevant. (As reported on The Guardian Online)

What the Apple-Samsung Case Means for Developers and Consumers

Apple’s suit says that the Galaxy phone and tablet infringe patents and the trademark shapes of the iPhone and iPad designs – and was followed by a counter-suit from Samsung, who said their own technological patents had been infringed. The court has decided that the CEOs of Apple and Samsung must meet in the next 90 days to settle these matters.

It could be said that, by suing Samsung, Apple are attacking Google by proxy; as Samsung devices run on the Android open software – which profits Google.

What these companies seem to forget is how their actions may affect their brand reputation. The consumers want the products they want, e.g. the German market wanted iPads and iPhones. If – or when – the consumer realises that brand X is the reason they can’t buy brand Y, their opinion of X goes down – and this must have an effect on sales and profits.

More importantly, when a company registers a patent for a software they may never develop, it stops other companies developing it and means the consumers may never get value from that software. Clearly, the big companies like Apple and Google should only, ethically, be allowed to patent things they have the resource and inclination to fulfil. Otherwise, this anti-competitiveness becomes a war that the smaller developers have no chance of surviving.

Rulings like this latest one means that those who develop their own software in good faith are less likely to accidentally find themselves stepping on the toes of Google and the like.

By battling over intellectual property, the big businesses are forgetting the collateral damage – the consumer. With any luck, the step taken by the courts over the Apple-Samsung dispute will force a first step towards a more long-term peace treaty amongst developers.

Apple Samsung court case over tablet and phone design


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