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On March 17th 1988, The Apple Computer corporation filed a law suit against Microsoft, accusing the latter of copying its idea for a graphical interface. Since that point the technology and software market has never been divorced from its attending patent battles and law suits which seem to be declared, won, lost and settled by the companies to the same extent as they market and sell their products.

On January 3rd 2011, Google bought 187 patents from IBM, a company from whom they had already bought 1,000 patents in the summer. This acquisition is just part of the legal activity which is always occurring in the in the technology and software industry, with corporations either having fun suing each other over patent violations or having fun charging each other for using patented property under a licence. In this sense Google is an interesting case, it a company fresh from its inception in the late 90s and as such it has not had time to accumulate an array of patents like its godparents Microsoft and Apple, and its benefactor-grandfather IBM.

This action will most certainly benefit Google considering its failure to win the famous Nortel patents. After a frenetic bidding battle (including one point where Google bid pi million dollars) they lost to the ‘unholy-alliance bidding consortium’. This terrible news for Google, as Nortel – the experienced but broke Canadian telephonics company – had a illustrious portfolio of patents which Google would have been pleased to add to their more modest collection. Fascinatingly, this case saw the disparate Microsoft, Apple and RIM (among others) united against their universal foe; Google.

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Circuit and operating method for integrated interface of PDA and Wireless communication system.

Sound familiar? – US Patent No 7765414 – one of three patents which HTC used to sue Apple during August this year, accusing most of Apple’s product portfolio of being technically HTC’s intellectual property. This was, to a very large extent, in response to Apple’s incorrigible habit of suing its competitors, especially its smartphone nemesis HTC.

One of the most interesting relationships between tech companies is found between the giants Apple and Samsung; both occupy similar space in the tech market, specialising in tablets and high-spec phones – areas in which Apple and Samsung are simultaneously suing each other over aspects of their respective offerings. In Germany, Apple attacked Samsung for the similarities between the Korean firm’s tablet device look and feel and their own, leading to a ban on the sale of these devices. Samsung has offered a return salvo recently, adding four new accused infringements of its wireless technology patents, with results yet to be witnessed. Amusingly, Samsung manufacture a large proportion of Apple’s components – welcome to tech realpolitik.

The US International Trade Commission began investigating on December the 21st patent infringement claims which were made against LG Electrical by InterDigital. InterDigital does not manufacture or market any software or technology products. InterDigital is one of a new and intriguing collection of firms which are beginning to crystallise out of the patent system. Patent trolls (companies which sit under bridges covetously pawing over their collections of patents) often use a system wherein tech companies will hand their patents to these trolls, who will then sue the firms which violate them.

One of the most infamous of these trolls is Digitude, which recently took simultaneous action against Amazon, HTC, RIM, LG, Samsung, Motorola, Sony, and Nokia. Patent trolling is a secretive area of the market, and the trolls operate through many proxy companies, making hard evidence difficult to obtain. Nevertheless, numerous sources have suggested that Apple has agreed a deal with Digitude, which would make it clear why the comprehensive list of tech companies against which Digitude has taken action does not include Apple.

The haze of law suits which surrounds the tech market will, I am sure, continue to attract lawyers and bloggers as the industry continues to innovate. The role of patent trolls, essentially in allowing the tech firms to outsource their patent-based legal action, will be a powerful one – whether they enforce their masters’ patents creating a more tightly applied metric for intellectual property, or irritate the US International Trade Commission enough to attract disciplinary action potentially breaking open the industry – it will have manifold consequences. As has been demonstrated by the Apple/Samsung case, it is not a case of having patents but of enforcing them, which leads me to speculate what it would be like for the industry if every patent which these companies considered to be infringed was acted upon – shall we open Pandora’s box of patent infringements?

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