Patent Wars Might Nullify Rivals' Patent Defenses

By Wayne Rash  |  Posted 2012-08-20 Print this article Print

That accountability may be arriving in the form of a new suit by Motorola Mobility, now owned by Google. Google, of course, developed the Android mobile OS that's got Apple running scared. Motorola holds some basic patents related to mobile phones, some of which were filed long before Apple sold its first iPhone.

The current lawsuit is asking that the U.S. International Trade Commission block the import of Apple iPhones, iPads, iPods and Macintosh computers because of the alleged patent infringement. While there's no question that Apple will fight, the fact is that each time it goes to court, Apple runs the risk that someone will discover that Apple doesn't own the rights to whatever patent is in question.

Ultimately the entire structure that Apple has put together can simply fall apart because the intellectual property on which it's based turns out not to belong to them. Whether this will happen in the case of the Apple-Samsung mess remains to be seen. It also remains to be seen whether it could happen in the recent Motorola action with the ITC.

But Apple's risk, like Ashton-Tate's, isn't as much the financial cost of the lawsuits, even if Apple loses. Apple, after all, has a lot of money and can afford to pay for licenses if it must. Instead, Apple's risk is twofold. The first is that too much attention will be taken away from innovation and spent on lawsuits. This may already be happening as Apple buys companies in a hurry because it needs their technology immediately.

The second risk, again like Ashton-Tate, is that Apple will lose the intellectual property on which it depends. With Ashton Tate, that happened when the company embarked on a disastrous series of lawsuits against people and companies trying to use the programming language that dBase II used, and later against people and companies who were making clones of the product.

Ultimately the discovery process turned up the fact that the original database language and file structure were developed at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena and as a result were owned by the government. When that happened the company imploded and ceased operations in 1991.

Could the same thing happen to Apple? The short answer is yes. Apple unfortunately has embarked on a course in which history is being ignored. Philosopher George Santayana warned that "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." Apple seems to be perilously close to following the path previously marked by Ashton-Tate and other companies that believed that an enterprise can replace innovation with litigation and still succeed. Unfortunately, history shows that isn't true.

Wayne Rash Wayne Rash is a Senior Analyst for eWEEK Labs and runs the magazine's Washington Bureau. Prior to joining eWEEK as a Senior Writer on wireless technology, he was a Senior Contributing Editor and previously a Senior Analyst in the InfoWorld Test Center. He was also a reviewer for Federal Computer Week and Information Security Magazine. Previously, he ran the reviews and events departments at CMP's InternetWeek.

He is a retired naval officer, a former principal at American Management Systems and a long-time columnist for Byte Magazine. He is a regular contributor to Plane & Pilot Magazine and The Washington Post.

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