Well, that was quick.
After taking a week off for the holidays, the tech patent wars that flared up throughout 2011 seem to be in full swing once again. Eastman Kodak, according to a Wall Street Journal report, is now on the precipice of Chapter 11 bankruptcy and actively shopping its portfolio of nearly 1,100 digital imaging patents to the highest bidder. The patents, which may fetch a price of as high as $3 billion, may be enough to keep the company afloat and enable Kodak to pivot into more profitable business lines, such as home photo printers.
Now that Kodak is actively shopping its patent portfolio, what other areas of the tech sector may see a flare up of the patent wars?
The most likely target for now is the fight over operating systems, as Google attempts to protect its Android OS from rivals. Just this week, according to a Jan. 4 report by the BBC, Google snared nearly another 200 patents from IBM to shore up its patent defense around Android, which has been under attack from rivals who claim that Google has unfairly appropriated innovations in order to transform Android into the world’s most popular operating system. Unlike proprietary operating systems, which are built up behind closed doors, Android is an open-source operating system that is particularly vulnerable to charges of patent infringement. The more powerful Android becomes, the more likely it is that rivals will step up their claims.
The battle over Android has primarily centered on its role as an operating system for mobile devices such as smart phones and tablets, but the battle could flow over into other areas of Internet innovation as well. For example, one of the most interesting patents that Google acquired from IBM this week was for a "system for using semantic networks to develop a social network." Is this a possible clue that Google’s patent strategy may encroach onto Facebook’s turf as it scrambles to put up a defensive wall around its still-fledgling Google+ social network?
It’s not only Google that’s interested in developing a defensive patent strategy for its mobile devices. Apple has been aggressive — some claim too aggressive — about pursuing rivals who infringe on its proprietary iOS operating system or its iPhone and iPad products.
In December, Apple was at it again, taking on HTC for possible patent infringements. Earlier in the year, Apple took on Samsung over the launch of products such as the Samsung Galaxy Tab. Apple has made some offensive bets as well, looking to preserve first-mover advantage when it comes to everything from voice-activated commands to advanced facial recognition techniques. In fact, there are even Apple fan blogs dedicated solely to tracking the latest intellectual property moves of Apple.
So intent has Apple been about protecting its IP, that rivals have been sniffing around mobile-sector competitors for some sort of legal upper hand. Remember the Google/Motorola Mobility deal that shook the tech world last year, specifically when Google paid out more than $12 billion for a massive patent portfolio? That scenario may play out again, on a smaller scale again this year. Rumors are circulating that Amazon, Microsoft and Nokia have explored potential deals with RIM, maker of the once-popular BlackBerry device. The value lies not so much with the BlackBerry devices themselves, but with the patents RIM may hold. By one estimate, the company's patents account for $3 billion to $4 billion of RIM's total $8 billion market valuation.
Apple, Samsung, Google and Microsoft are now engaged in over 100 patent lawsuits in at least 10 different countries, according to a Dec. 26 report by the Boston Globe’s Hiawatha Bray. The wild card in all this patent madness may turn out to be the corporate entities known as “patent trolls” — companies that amass large patent portfolios of their own in the hopes of putting innovation roadblocks in the way of cash-rich tech behemoths. That’s what happened in 2006, when RIM found itself forced by Network Technology Partners (NTP), often characterized as a patent troll, to pay out over $600 million for a possible patent infringement as a way to keep its devices from being shut off by the courts. That sort of patent mayhem, extended into areas from smart phones and tablets to operating systems, could put a serious damper on innovation in the global tech sector in 2012.
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