Nokia, Apple ratchet up the patent madness

The companies have been at each other's throats since October suing, countersuing and piling on claims of patent infringement

Nokia vs. Apple is not your garden variety patent infringement lawsuit.

The companies have been at each other's throats since October, when Nokia accused Apple of infringing 10 patents with the iPhone. Apple countersued, and Nokia piled on seven new patents in January. Then, both companies took their cases to the United States International Trade Commission, where the lawsuits are now pending. On Friday, Nokia announced that it's suing Apple some more, tacking on another five patents and including Apple's 3G-enabled iPad.

When you look at some of the tech sector's biggest patent cases over the years, (ongoing ones here and major past lawsuits here), this is not how it's supposed to play out.

Usually there are two potential scenarios: Most likely, an obscure company sues a tech giant, seeking a big cash payout for little-known innovations and making headlines in the process. A notable example is NTP's lawsuit against BlackBerry phone maker Research in Motion for several wireless patents. RIM ultimately paid a $615 million settlement to prevent an injunction on its phones. More recently, a company called i4i almost knocked Microsoft Office off store shelves due to a patent related to XML.

The other kind of case involves two or more major brand names going head-to-head on big ideas. For example, TiVo and EchoStar have been fighting for years over a TiVo DVR patent related to watching one show and recording another at the same time. In 1998, Apple sued Microsoft, alleging that Windows stole Apple's idea of a graphical user interface for computers. Then, Xerox joined the fray, claiming the GUI was its idea. An ongoing example is Apple's patent lawsuit against HTC, which claims that the Android phone maker rips off several aspects of the iPhone's user interface.

The quarrel between Apple and Nokia falls into neither category. Both companies are household names, so this isn't a case of Goliath stealing David's big idea. But unlike Apple's battle with HTC over user interface, or TiVo's fight with EchoStar over one DVR function, it's hard to point to a specific innovation at stake in this case because both sides are piling all sorts of patent claims, ranging from wireless technologies to speech and data transmission to space-saving techniques.

The argument from both sides, in aggregate, is that the other company stole a lot of important ideas and needs to pay up. But what good does that serve for innovation and the consumer?

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Jared Newman

PC World (US online)
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