Nevada ‘patent troll’ fights Google, Samsung in court
LONDON — Across the river from Reno’s casino district, above an Italian restaurant, you can find the little- known companythat says it “invented the mobile Internet”.
Unwired Planet has 16 employees and no products. What it does have is a portfolio of more than 2,000 patents, mostly acquired from Ericsson AB, which it says on its website are “considered foundational to mobile communications”. The Nevada-based firm wants more than just recognition.
Starting next week it takes on three of the world’s biggest technology companies — Samsung Electronics, Huawei Technologies and Google — in a London courtroom for six sprawling patent trials that will last more than a year.
For the phone-makers, the cases are little more than a nuisance.They say in court documents that Unwired Planet is seeking excessive licensing fees for patents that aren’t even valid. If approved, the intellectual property could be worth hundreds of millions of dollars in royalties to Unwired Planet, which is currently valued at about US$85 million (S$121.9 million).
As smartphones became ubiquitous, so did legal disputes about who invented the roughly quarter of a million proprietary gadgets in every handset. The emergence of firms that exist solely to acquire patents and wring money out of them by threatening lawsuits has led to calls in the US for legislation to combat so-called patent trolls.
“It’s become a hackneyed term that’s used in a derogatory way,” Unwired Planet general counsel Noah Mesel said. He prefers the description “patent-licensing company”.
“You can call us anything you like,” he said. “We happen to be at the point in our business cycle where what’s left is a patent portfolio.”
Patent troll is “a loaded term,” said political science professor Stephen Haber at Stanford University. “It might best be understood as ‘a patent licensing company that the speaker wants the listener to dislike’.”
Huawei said it would “vigorously defend its legitimate rights”. Spokesmen for Samsung and Google, which isn’t involved in the first trial, didn’t respond to an e-mail and phone call seeking comment.
How did a company most people have never heard of come to lay claim to elements found in virtually every smartphone?