Stalemate in smartphone patent wars

The courtroom patent battles that have made smartphone industry news for the past few years may be grinding to a halt. With a morally and financially inconclusive court ruling in the United States, following closely on action against these cases by European regulators, it may be time for the handset makers to give up the fight.

A small price for Samsung to pay

$119.6 million sounds like a lot to most of us, but to a smartphone giant like Samsung it’s just a drop in the ocean. And that’s how much a San Jose jury have ordered Samsung to pay Apple for infringing on two of its patents.

Apple had sought $2 billion in damages, making the payout a disappointment rather than a big win for the American company. To rub salt in the wound, the court also ruled that Apple had infringed on one of Samsung’s patents, ordering them to pay $158,000 in damages.

This ruling may come as a surprise to some, especially given that Apple were competing on their home turf. Without a decisive outcome in favour of one of the manufacturers, the only real winners in this case have been the lawyers.

Europe says no

On the other side of the Atlantic, anti-trust regulators have stepped in to stop more court battles breaking out. European Union authorities have pointed the finger at Samsung and Motorola, discouraging both companies from smartphone patent suits.

The European commissioner responsible for anti-trust enforcement, Joaquin Almunia, has made clear in a statement that smartphone patent battles should not be allowed to continue at the cost of customers. According to Almunia, while the companies holding payments should be fairly rewarded for the use of their technology this should not be allowed to get in the way of better standardised phones.

The European Union’s customer-focused stance represents a very different perspective from that of the American courtroom. While lawyers and judges have been deciding cases entirely around the interests of the companies, European authorities have concerned themselves with the bigger picture, standing up for smartphone users.

Yet the end results of both events may be the same. Patent battles are looking less and less productive for manufacturers, and more likely to bring them both public disdain and official reprimands.

One battle over, what about the war?

So what next in the patent wars?

It would be naïve to think that these court cases are just going to end. There are huge profits at stake, and other cases will be in the works.

But the small San Jose payout, along with restrictions on these cases in the EU, may make big manufacturers rethink their tactics. Why fight a costly court battle for little advantage when they can instead licence their technology to each other for profit? Might some companies see more to gain from cooperation than conflict? Will public legal battles be replaced by hard fought contract negotiations?

As Joaquin Almunia has highlighted, these court cases bring no benefit from customers, only preventing the best features from being combined. Perhaps we will see better from handset manufacturers from now on.

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