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Brief: The Black Patent Cloud Over Bluetooth

A foundation backing a university researcher claims it violates patented technology

Bluetooth is a tech standard that's working, with fierce competitors rallying to it for short-range wireless connections such as cell phones to headsets. So of course someone wants to make them pay for it.

The Washington Research Foundation, founded to help the state's universities commercialize research, last week sued Nokia, Panasonic, and Samsung in a U.S. District Court, saying the phone makers' use of Bluetooth violates a patent for a radio frequency receiver technology awarded to a University of Washington scientist. Ericsson, IBM, Intel, Nokia, and Toshiba founded a group in 1998 to manage the Bluetooth standard, aiming for a royalty-free standard to allow short-range transmission of digital voice and data.

If Bluetooth users are forced to pay royalties, they could be significant, says Bruce Sunstein, a patent lawyer with Bromberg & Sunstein, because the patent "is not just a pie in the sky and has merit." One thing we learned from watching the four-year Research In Motion-NTP patent case over wireless e-mail technology is that patent lawsuits drag on. Sunstein predicts at least three years to get it settled--potentially casting a dark cloud over Bluetooth all the while.

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