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6/10/2011
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Apple Steps Into Lodsys Case: What's Next?

Fighting back against patent trolling, Apple intercedes in a suit that could damage its relationship with iOS developers and reduce revenue.

Slideshow: Verizon iPhone 4 Teardown
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Slideshow: Verizon iPhone 4 Teardown
With its Worldwide Developer Conference underway, Apple on Thursday answered the prayers of many of the developers attending the event. The company filed a legal motion to be allowed to intervene in the widely reported patent infringement lawsuit filed against seven developers by patent holding company Lodsys.

The filing comes shortly after Apple began surveying its app developers about the legal status of their apps, a business process that demonstrates at least that Apple has recognized the need to be better informed about third-party lawsuits that could affect its business.

Apple's motion was first reported by intellectual property activist Florian Mueller, who has argued that Apple needed to take action to address the threat to its developer ecosystem and platforms.

It's an issue that goes beyond individual developers and development companies to any company that develops applications, iOS or otherwise, in-house. The next patent infringement claim, from Lodsys or some other patent owner, could just as well be directed at some enterprise creating software for internal use, if those apps rely on a technology platform subject to patent disputes.

The very notion of a platform--a set of APIs and related technology that developers can extend--gets called into question if usage of the platform creates legal liability. The long tail of developers innovating on third-party platforms will get much shorter if platform owners are unable or unwilling to offer patent infringement indemnification.

Indeed, Apple acknowledges the threat to its business in its filing with the Texas court hearing the Lodsys case.

"Apple has a direct and substantial interest in preserving the value of its license, as well as in protecting the value of its technology, services, and relationships with the Developers," Apple's motion states. "Those interests will be prejudiced absent intervention here. A determination that the Developers are not permitted to use Apple's licensed products and services will significantly diminish the value of Apple's license rights, impair its relationships with the Developers, and lead to loss of significant revenue from all developers."

Craig Hockenberry, a developer with Iconfactory, one of the companies named in Lodsys's patent infringement complaint, last month said in a blog post that the lawsuit "has already started killing" his company's enthusiasm for iOS and Mac development.

It's not immediately clear whether the court will grant Apple's motion, but Mueller suggests that the court is likely to do so.

The case is far from over, however. Apple's motion could be opposed by Lodsys, particularly because Apple's contractual terms with developers make it clear that developers and not Apple bear legal liability.

Lodsys did not respond to a request to confirm whether it plans to oppose Apple's motion; company CEO Mark Small declined a previous request for comment, stating in an email that Lodsys has elected not to participate in interviews with the press.

Google's position in this case also awaits clarification. One of the developers sued by Lodsys creates Android software. To date, Google has declined to answer questions about the Lodsys case.

Ultimately, the Lodsys case and others like it may lead to better terms for developers. Just as landlords provide some basic level of structural integrity and security to tenants in their buildings--a room without roof or doors wouldn't find many renters--platform owners may be compelled to provide some minimal level of protection to the developers huddled on their platform.

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