Patent War Goes Nuclear As Apple, Microsoft-Backed Group Sues Google, Samsung And Others

A patent troll funded by Apple, Microsoft, and a handful of other tech companies is suing Google and a number of its Android partners, including Samsung, HTC, Asustek, and LG.

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Apple, Microsoft-Backed 'Rockstar' Uses Nortel Patents To Sue Google, Samsung And Others

In 2011, Google lost an expensive bidding war for a group of Nortel Networks patents to a handful of technology giants including Apple and Microsoft that paid $4.5 billion. Two years later, a consortium jointly owned by those companies is suing Google for patent infringement.

The lawsuits were filed on Thursday by a tiny company called the Rockstar Consortium, as first reported by Reuters. Rockstar is a new breed of company.

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It’s jointly owned by five tech giants — Apple, Microsoft, Blackberry, Sony, and Ericsson — and it’s chartered with making back the $4.5 billion these companies pooled together to build its patent portfolio.

Google is accused of infringing seven patents. The patents cover technology that helps match Internet search terms with relevant advertising, the lawsuit said, which is the core of Google's search business.

Illustration From One Patent In Suit regarding An "Associative Search Engine"

Technically, The Only Real Goal Of Rockstar Is To Be A “Patent Troll” But Unlike Individual Companies, The Group Takes It To An Entirely Different Level

While not an active company in the traditional sense, Rockstar employs a small team of 10 reverse engineers who spend their days looking at competing devices to see if any of them infringe on the Nortel patents.

If the engineers come across a phone, tablet, or other device, which may be using Nortel’s ideas, Rockstar’s legal team jumps into action and tries to settle with the manufacturer.

Rockstar's reverse-engineering lab in Ottawa, Canada.

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Many analysts have criticized this type of patent troll behavior, as it exemplifies the worst aspect of standard-essential patents. At the same time, while Android is gaining a market share and new data shows that the OS makes up 81% of the phone marketplace, Apple and Microsoft are using Rockstar to take down Android in a different way.

The stakeholders of Rockstar claim that the consortium acts independently. And, because Rockstar doesn’t have any operations of its own, Google, and other companies in its sights, can’t retaliate with a countersuit, like Samsung did with Apple.

Because Rockstar is a distinct entity, it can even sue companies that its owners have patent agreements with – for instance, Apple and HTC signed a 10-year patent licensing deal, but that didn’t shelter the Taiwanese company from Rockstar’s suit. Sony, as a stakeholder in Rockstar and a major Google Android partner, is also in an interesting position.

Rockstar Is Seeking An Award For Past And Future Damages

Due to Google's allegedly willful infringement of the seven patents, the consortium is also looking for additional damages including attorneys' fees and costs associated with the suit.

Patent lawsuits can take years to finalize, and it’s not clear yet if the patents that Rockstar yields as a weapon against Google and Android OEMs are essential to their business. In other words, there’s a long way to go before these lawsuits have any tangible effects.

However, the fact that Rockstar has finally commenced its attack should be worrying for consumers, who have absolutely nothing to gain from it.

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