Peace breaking out in smartphone patent wars

Caroline Gabriel/Wireless Watch
17 Feb 2014

The old order in wireless patents has held for long enough, a group of large players is saying, and a series of cross-licensing deals may finally signal the end of the recent smartphone IPR wars.

Over the past couple of weeks, we have seen Samsung signing a significant alliance with Google, and Google with Cisco. Now they have completed the triangle, with Samsung and Cisco announcing a similar wide-ranging patents deal. And HTC and Nokia have joined the wave of hostile handset makers who are calling an end to hostilities – focusing all eyes on whether Apple will eventually do the same.

Samsung, Google and Cisco have been explicit that their cross-licensing pacts are designed to protect them from the intensifying attacks of litigious rivals like Apple and of patent trolls – some of them shell companies set up to house the patents of major vendors. The more that large firms license one another's IPR, the more they are building a fortress which it will be hard for trolls and lawyers to attack successfully.

Google and Cisco are relative newcomers to the mobile IPR minefield and do not necessarily feel bound to follow its traditional processes – secretive bilateral deals have been the norm between the massive mobile patent owners like Qualcomm, Ericsson and Nokia. Every so often, those deals fell apart and led to litigation, but to some extent, these traditional players had neutralized one another with huge, well-matched arsenals.

This mutually assured destruction approach was disrupted by the entry of companies whose patents were not standards-essential and mainly focused on areas of new importance in mobility, such as user interface. The aggression of Apple, in particular, forced Google to acquire IPR-rich Motorola Mobility, but also to seek other ways of protecting itself and its Android ecosystem. It has largely steered clear of direct legal confrontations (except those it inherited with Motorola, and its Oracle spat over Java). Instead, it has consistently taken the high ground and urged companies to “innovate not litigate”, and the new round of cross-licensing deals put firepower behind that – especially if they “encumber” the patents, as in the Google-Samsung agreement (this means they cannot be used against either signatory in future, even if they are sold on to a third party).

The latest deal sees Samsung agreeing a 10-year pact with Cisco, adding to similar agreements it has with Nokia, Google and Ericsson. The new arrangement covers existing patents and those filed over the course of its 10-year term.

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