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Patenting wars in smartphone Technology

Introduction: Smartphone Technology

Mobile phones today are becoming a huge part of our lives and patents are used by companies to protect their innovations and increase market share which creates immense competition between the smartphone companies and their technologies.

Today these smartphones can be unlocked by our face, voice and even fingerprints. The 2012 Smartphone Patent Study defined smartphones as “hand-held computing devices that: 

  • have the ability to make phone calls over cellular networks, and
  • can transfer data and run applications over mobile computing networks.”[1] The peripheral of patenting the smartphone industry usually works upon the aspect of either utility patents or design patents.[2]

 They have eliminated everything, a smartphone today is a one stop solution to study, work, entertain, communicate, etc. It has indeed brought the world closer and unwaveringly ensured that the information is transmitted from even the most remote corners of the world. It has made the houses of the people user-accessible through the way of connectivity to the home automation system. What we see today is indeed an undeniable part of Industry 4.0 through the advent of the Internet of Things (IoT).

Patents and the Smartphone industry

When deliberating upon the patents in the smartphone industry, it is often conceived that the patent carries the filing of an application and the grant of an exclusive right over it.

The patents refer to the exclusive right granted over an invention for a period of twenty years, whereby such an invention is capable of industrial application,[3] has an element of inventive step[4] and is novel in nature[5].[6] A patent can be granted on an invention that portrays a development in the technology which had not been present prior to the invention. There should be an element in innovation that make the life of people easier. A patent would not be granted on any machine which is against the universal laws of motion.

The Smartphone Patent wars

With the developed Network Patent Analysis (NPA) method for advanced analysis of patent data reveal that Apple Inc. is leading patent portfolio in smartphone technology followed by Microsoft and IBM[7].

The smartphone tech giants in today’s era work towards widening the scope of their inventions by claiming an overlapping set of inventions. This invariably led to the war between Apple Incorporation and the Android Phone Companies. The most imperative question being the patenting of ‘Slide to Unlock’ in the case of Apple Inc. v. Motorola, Inc.[8]. The impugned case as mentioned above was with regard to the infringement of 15 patents that were owned by Apple Inc. While Motorola Mobility claimed infringement over 6 of its patented inventions.  However, in this case, the Hon’ble Court granted no damages to any party in a summary decision due to the absence of proper evidentiary value.

A similar situation arose in the case of Blackberry Ltd. v. Nokia Corp.[9] In the specific precedent, Blackberry and Nokia came into the headlines in the 21st century as Nokia was accused of using technology by Blackberry. It had also been claimed that Nokia knowingly and intentionally encourages and aids at least its end-users to directly infringe the asserted patents. It was also asserted that Nokia had been, an active inducer of infringement of these patents under 35 U.S.C. § 271(b) and a contributory infringer under 35 U.S.C. § 271(c).

Surprisingly the patenting in the smartphone industry has been an unfought battle from time immemorial, however, there was an endeavor to resolve the same through the way of Rockstar Consortium (which initially took form as Rockstar Bidco), a group created by Apple, EMC, Ericsson, Microsoft, Research In Motion (Blackberry) and Sony in the year 2011 to bid for a group of around 6,000 Nortel patents sold as part of the company’s liquidation. It had the imperative task of negotiating the patent license terms. The company was later renamed Rockstar Consortium and is now run as an independent company seeking licensing arrangements based on the ex-Nortel patents.

Nonetheless, the patenting wasn’t resolved anytime soon, the patenting war between Apple Inc. and Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd. has been unprecedented. In 2011 also Samsung was accused of the infringement of three design patents and utility patents of Apple. In 2018, the accusation sought by Apple Inc. made Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd. liable for such an infringement.[10] Moreover, the Hon’ble Court upheld it as infringement under the U.S. Code Title 35 § 289.

However, as we speak today, patents play a major role in the technological domain. It has its existence all the way to the Standard Essential Patents (SEPs). The SEPs can be understood as a set of technical specifications that seek to provide a common design for a product or process. In other words, these are specific set of standards which are established to have the basic level of technology which should be common to the whole industry. It has also been ratified by the European Union through the gateway of ISO/IEC Guide 2:2004 Standardization and related activities. One of the landmark decisions on the same was discerned in the case of Micromax Informatics Limited v Telefonaktiebolaget LM Ericsson (PUBL) & Ors.[11] In the impugned case, the Hon’ble Delhi High Court deliberated upon the aspect of the adherence to the fair, reasonable, and non-discriminatory (FRAND) terms of the SEP license agreement and the calculation of royalties based on a percentage price of the phone.[12]

Conclusion

The innovation in the smartphone industry would not stop anytime soon and it has the ability to bring in distinct developments for the same in the future. The wireless standards have innovation that comes in waves, with 3G and 4G/LTE reaching maturation, while 5G has a solid upward trend. However, even today, the patenting of mobile software is a gray area in India due to the existence of Section 3(k) of The Patent Act, 1970. The patenting of the design and utility of smartphones is something that has been exploited very well in India and it does not have the tendency to end anytime soon. The smartphones, as well as their use today, is becoming very complex and it has the ability to excel more. Furthermore, the inventions in the specific field are bound to increase and therefore it is arduous to even fathom that the investments that would be used into this as well as the revenue as a whole that will be generated. The patenting landscape in the field of smartphones has a very promising future and it can invariably benefit both development and the public good.


[1] 2012 Smartphone Patent Study, Report on an Analysis of the Economic/Legal Literature on Intellectual Property (IP) Rights: a Barrier to Entry? World Intellectual Property Organization (January. 16, 2012).

[2]Joel R. Reidenberg,  Cameron Russell, Maxim Price & Anand Mohan, Patents and Small Participants in the Smartphone Industry, World Intellectual Property Rights Organization (WIPO), (Updated on January 15, 2015). {https://www.wipo.int/export/sites/www/ip-competition/en/studies/clip_smartphone_patent.pdf}

[3] Section 2(1)(ac) of The Patent Act, 1970.

[4] Section 2(1)(ja) of The Patent Act, 1970.

[5] Section 2(1)(l) of The Patent Act, 1970.

[6] Section 2(1)(j) of The Patent Act, 1970.

[7] https://static1.squarespace.com/static/59135ec8c534a503fc198ff6/t/59501e34b11be16553f94701/1498422933505/The+Smartphone+Patent+Wars+whitepaper_March+2012.pdf

[8] No. 12-1548 (Fed. Cir. 2014).

[9] Civil Action No. 17-cv-155-RGA

[10] Samsung Electronics Co., Ltd., Et Al.,v. Apple Inc., 580 U. S. (2016).

[11] (2016) DHC, FAO (OS) 75/2016.

[12] Vringo Infrastructure Inc. and Anr. v. ZTE Corporation and Ors, [(2014) DHC, FAO (OS) 369 / 2014].

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