Smartphone patent fight: 'World War III'

Experts expect most of the dozens of patent lawsuits to eventually be settled; smartphone innovation could suffer, some add

Smartphone-related patent infringement lawsuits Apple and Samsung recently filed against each other are but the latest in an escalating series of Android and open-source-related complaints filed by major corporations over the past 18 months.

After more than 40 lawsuits, there's no sign of a letup in smartphone litigiousness, leaving patent experts divided over whether the epic phone fights are a sign of a healthy free market or a serious deterrent to future innovators.

Several patent experts said in interviews that when the dust finally settles, they believe that Apple -- with arguably the biggest smartphone legal stake -- would prefer to reach settlement agreements with various Android manufacturers such as Samsung. That means that Apple would seek damages and and future license agreements from lawsuit opponents, rather than fighting to prevent the sale of Android phones in the U.S.

"These companies are all trying to get more space in the valuable smartphone market, and [they all] hold huge portfolios of patents, so they will use every tool at their disposal," said Tim Delaney, an intellectual property litigator at Brinks Hofer in Chicago. Delaney added that he has no role in any of the current suits.

"The players are competing in every way imaginable: on price, patents and in advertising," Delaney said. "I'm sure they all have their big stables of expert patent witnesses and lawyers ready to go. It will be World War III."

Delaney, like seven other patent attorneys interviewed for this story but not involved in the lawsuits, said it is "possible, but unlikely, that some company could get knocked out of selling handsets" as a result of the current suits. Economic considerations come into play as to how patent lawsuit strategies proceed, he said.

Delaney argued, for example, that since Apple was first to market with its iconic iPhone in 2007, it is more invested in seeing other smartphones stopped cold than, say, Microsoft. Still, Apple might seek a settlement and a licensing agreement with Android smartphone makers, just to benefit financially from Android's growing revenues, several attorneys speculated.

Microsoft, meanwhile, was late to the game with Windows Phone 7, whose Windows Phone OS currently lags behind Google's Android, Apple's iOS, Research In Motion's BlackBerry and Nokia's Symbian.

Therefore, Microsoft might seek licensing agreements or royalties from other companies -- instead of seeking injunctions in any suit it brings. Proceeds from the settlements would be used to cover Microsoft's smartphone research investment costs, Delaney asserted. (In fact, in April 2010, HTC signed a settlement agreement calling for it to pay Microsoft royalties for its Android phones.)

How did we get here?

Before making further predictions on the outcome of the phone patent battles, it's useful to look at some background.

Since early 2010, there have been so many smartphone- and wireless-related lawsuits filed around the globe that nobody seems to have an accurate count.

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