The European Patent Office (EPO) has upheld a narrowed version of a patent on 3G technology at the heart of several legal disputes in Germany, an EPO spokesman said Thursday.
By upholding the patent, which its owner IPCom has declared essential to 3G standards, the EPO rejected claims from Nokia, HTC, Apple, Ericsson and Vodafone, which opposed the patent, the spokesman said.
The EPO had previously denied a broader version of the patent, but on Wednesday upheld IPCom's narrower redrafting of it, according to the EPO spokesman. The decision can be appealed, but it is not yet clear whether that will happen, he said.
The patent describes the allocation of network access via the so-called Random Access Channel (RACH), allowing handsets access to the networks of the various mobile telecommunications providers, said IPCom, in a news release. "As such, it is standard-essential within the UMTS and LTE standards, and its use is mandatory," it said.
Standard essential patents (SEPs) are patents that the owner deems essential to the implementation of industry standards. Companies that declare their patents as standards-essential are usually required to license them on fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory (FRAND) terms. Would-be licensees, however, often disagree about what constitutes a reasonable licensing fee.
The technology described in the IPCom patent, originally developed by Bosch, is particularly important for the emergency services and police, since it can give them priority access to networks in emergencies, even if the networks are overloaded, according to IPCom.
IPCom said smartphones made by Nokia, HTC and others currently deviate from the UMTS 3G standard in their use of the Random Access Channel, claiming they did this to avoid paying license fees. However, they are still solving the same problem using a slightly different technology, and that is not enough to avoid infringing the patent, said an IPCom spokesman.
Nokia spokesman Mark Durrant said that the version of IPCom's patent upheld by the EPO was so substantially narrowed that it will have no effect on Nokia.
"Nokia does not believe that it is possible for any UMTS product to infringe the narrowed form of the patent. Yet again, IPCom appears to be overestimating the value of its remaining patent," he said via email.
But IPCom also accused the handset vendors of putting public safety at risk in their attempts to avoid patent infringement. If the vendors were to deviate from the standard far enough to fall outside the scope of IPCom's patent, they would also fall outside of the UMTS standard, which could interfere with the correct functioning of the network and lead to a security risk in an emergency, the spokesman said.
Nokia's Durrant shot back: "Claims that we are somehow interfering with correct operation of the networks or risking security are just not right." He said that the feature described in the narrowed patent, which covers prioritizing access to the network in special situations, is an optional one in the standard -- and one that no operator has implemented in its UMTS 3G networks. Even if a network had implemented the feature, Nokia's devices would still comply to the UMTS standard, he said.
HTC did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Now that the EPO has upheld the patent, a number of court cases on damages and infringement are slated to take place in the coming months, IPCom said. Among them are a damages case against Apple that is scheduled for Feb. 11 at the Regional Court of Mannheim and an infringement case against Nokia scheduled for May 28 at the Higher Regional Court of Karlsruhe, it said.
Apple did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
IPCom wants the companies to license the patent. "The industry should bear in mind that damages for patent infringement set by the courts can be significantly higher than a license at FRAND conditions," it said.
Founded in 2007, IPCom is a patent license manager with a portfolio of almost 1,200 patents in about 160 patent families in the field of mobile communications, according to its website. It claims 35 of those families are essential to implementation of key mobile communications standards in 2G (GSM), 2.5G (GPRS), 3G (UMTS) and subsequent generations.
Loek is Amsterdam Correspondent and covers online privacy, intellectual property, open-source and online payment issues for the IDG News Service. Follow him on Twitter at @loekessers or email tips and comments to email@example.com