Apple and Microsoft are part of a group that has filed patent claims against Google and major Android device makers.
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When Google lost its bid to acquire Nortel's patent portfolio in 2011, Kent Walker, senior VP and general counsel, said the outcome was "disappointing for anyone who believes that open innovation benefits users and promotes creativity and competition," and promised to keep working to reduce "the current flood of patent litigation that hurts both innovators and consumers."
Whatever work the company has done over the past two years was not enough. The Rockstar Consortium, a group of technology companies that paid $4.5 billion to outbid Google for Nortel's patents, on Thursday filed separate patent infringement lawsuits against Google and seven Android manufacturers: Asustek, HTC, Huawei, LG Electronics, Pantech, Samsung, and ZTE.
The consortium includes Apple, BlackBerry, EMC, Ericsson, Microsoft, and Sony. Apple and Microsoft, of course, represent two of Google's major competitors in the mobile and desktop technology markets.
One reason such consortia exist is to file lawsuits without the risk of a counter lawsuit: Rockstar does not make products and thus isn't vulnerable to patent claim remedies like an injunction. It remains to be seen whether Google will be sufficiently threatened by Rockstar to launch a legal counter-strike on its members. To date, its efforts to do so through its Motorola subsidiary have not been particularly effective.
The lawsuits were filed in the Eastern District of Texas, a popular venue for patent lawsuits.
Though Google's Android operating system has been the focus of litigation for years, the complaint against Google takes aim at Google's heart: its search advertising business.
The complaint lists six patents covering search technology dating back to 1997. The fact that Google tried to buy these patents is being held against it: The complaint cites Google's bid as evidence of willful infringement.
"Despite losing in its attempt to acquire the patents-in-suit at auction, Google has infringed and continues to infringe the patents-in-suit despite its knowledge of the patents-in-suit and the objectively high likelihood that its actions constitute patent infringement," the complaint says.
Non-practicing entities such as Rockstar that bring patent lawsuits are often referred to as patent trolls, at least by those being sued and critics of the current patent system. Two such academics, James Bessen and Michael Meuer, published a study last year finding that patent trolls cost the economy $29 billion in 2011.
The term "patent troll," however, assumes the patents at issue are overly broad or of dubious merit and the entity's claim is aimed to force a settlement from a company that cannot afford to risk the expense of patent litigation. The provenance of Rockstar's patents and the companies behind the consortium suggest that this isn't as much cynical extortion of defenseless travelers as it is a renewed assault in a long campaign against a major rival and its allies.
Last month, Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) introduced the Innovation Act, to address some of the problems with the patent system. If passed into law, the Act will make it easier for successful defendants to recover costs from plaintiffs, will allow businesses to defend customers sued for using their products, and will promote patent ownership transparency, among other reforms. However, it will not do away with business method patents, which many in the technology industry believe should not qualify for patent protection.
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