The mobile computing boom has turned into a courthouse war of the titans, as big tech companies are increasingly engaged in high-dollar legal disputes over lucrative patents for the software that makes smartphones and tablets so popular around the world.Industry experts say they've never seen so many claims and counterclaims between major tech companies: Google (GOOG) threw a spotlight on the issue last week when it accused Apple (AAPL), Microsoft and Oracle (ORCL) of using patents as weapons in an organized campaign to "strangle" Google's popular Android software. But other competitors, such as Nokia and Apple, have also feuded over patents in court.
"This is the biggest patent battle in U.S. history," said Joshua Walker of Lex Machina, an online tracking service that has counted a steady increase in disputes involving wireless phones and mobile computing. "There's no precedent for this."
The stakes are high. Oracle has said its claims against Google could be worth $2 billion or more. Other suits could lead to court
orders that bar products from the market. Samsung has already agreed to delay Australian sales of one tablet computer that Apple says is too close a copy of its own popular iPad.
The disputes have also sparked an expensive arms race between groups of tech rivals, vying to outbid each other for the patent portfolios of other companies, in what most analysts view as an attempt to secure either offensive or defensive weapons for the ongoing patent battles.
"A patent is nothing but a license to sue," said Alexander Poltorak, who advises independent inventors as CEO of General Patent Corp. In business, he added, patents are "weapons of war."
So far this year, about 270 U.S. lawsuits have been filed over patents relating to mobile technology, out of 1,900 suits involving patents of all kinds, according to Lex Machina's Walker.
What is particularly unusual is that so many large tech companies are butting heads, he added. While big semiconductor companies and PC-makers have clashed over patents in the past, Walker said the bulk of disputes traditionally involve solo inventors, startups or patent-holding companies, sometimes known as "patent trolls," whose main business involves buying patents and licensing them to others.
"This is the largest conflagration of patent litigation between competitors that we've seen in a long time," agreed Stanford law professor Mark Lemley, an expert on intellectual property disputes.
Several factors are behind the torrent of litigation: The phenomenal success of Apple's iPhone and iPad has prompted other companies to rush into the market with similar products. Google's strategy of letting device-makers use Android at little or no cost -- while Google makes money from mobile Internet searches -- has made it easier for new competitors to enter the business.
"You have a growing marketplace with many participants vying for a share," Poltorak said.
Some companies are viewing license fees as a major new revenue stream, he added. But some experts also say mobile technology is so complex that it's almost inevitable to find some overlap in features or lines of code.
"Most patent suits in the IT industry aren't about 'You stole this from me,' " Lemley said. "It's about: 'I got there first and I staked out the claim and so I'm the only one who can do this.' " Lemley, whose law firm has advised Google on some intellectual property issues, said he was not speaking for Google.
While some companies, such as Apple, say cases of copying or infringement are clear-cut, others including Google complain that the patent process is too easily gamed, allowing patent-holders to claim ownership of common ideas or techniques.
"There's an argument that the patent system is out of whack," said Will Stofega, a mobile industry analyst with the IDC research firm.
Taken individually, the claims are often highly technical and very specific. In one tentative ruling last month, the U.S. International Trade Commission found that Taiwan's HTC, which makes several Android phones, infringed on an Apple patent for multimedia technology that lets smartphone users make a call by touching a phone number that appears in their email.
In another example, Apple has asserted that Android-powered devices from both Samsung and HTC have infringed on an Apple patent for software that makes the display on a touch screen appear to "bounce" when a user scrolls to the end of a list.
Apple has particularly criticized Korea's Samsung for "slavishly" copying the Cupertino company's technology, user interfaces and product designs. That's allowed Samsung "to benefit unfairly from Apple's reputation and success," Apple said in a lawsuit. Samsung has disputed the allegations and filed its own countersuits.
The broader pattern of claims, meanwhile, often resembles the evolving competitive landscape.
Nokia was the world's leading smartphone maker for many years, until Apple's new iPhone began surging in popularity. In 2009, Nokia launched a series of patent claims and lawsuits against its new rival.
Apple countersued and the two companies settled their disputes only this summer, with a broad licensing agreement that called for the Cupertino computer-maker to pay Finland's Nokia an undisclosed sum.
Since then, Apple has overtaken Nokia to become the biggest seller of smartphones in the world, according to Canalys, an international market research firm.
But Google's Android is the most popular mobile operating system, since it's used by numerous gadget-makers to power their smartphones and tablets. Google has argued that's why Android is now the target of so many claims.
Google also has far fewer patents than some of its major rivals, according to analysts, who note that Google is a younger company than Apple or Microsoft, and it has made greater use of open-source software rather than proprietary code.
Experts say a hefty patent portfolio can be a shield against accusations of infringement, because the accused company can threaten a countersuit based on its own holdings -- a tactic some compare to the nuclear-era doctrine of "mutually assured destruction."
Google recently bid $900 million for 6,000 patents belonging to the bankrupt telecommunications company Nortel, in what it described as an effort to bolster its defenses against future attacks. But a consortium led by Apple, Microsoft and BlackBerry-maker Research In Motion won the Nortel auction by offering $4.5 billion.
The size of the winning bid stunned many in the industry. "The only logical conclusion is that the buyers will have to use the portfolio to extract cash from third parties," said Eric Goldman, director of the High Tech Law Institute at Santa Clara University. "That's the only way the price tag makes sense."
Citing unnamed sources, the Wall Street Journal has reported the Justice Department is looking into whether the winning consortium plans to use the Nortel patents to unfairly undermine Android.
Many analysts, meanwhile, expect Google will end up paying royalties to settle at least some Android challenges.
But that may not happen right away, said Jack Gold, who follows the mobile industry at J. Gold Associates. "And there will likely be a significant amount of turmoil first."
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