The intellectual-property war between Microsoft and Motorola Mobility is reaching a crucial phase, with the International Trade Commission's Aug. 22 hearing into whether the handset maker's Google Android devices violate Microsoft patents.
Microsoft holds that Android broadly violates its intellectual-property rights, and has aggressively pursued litigation against companies that use Android as the operating system for their mobile hardware. Part of Microsoft's Android strategy also involves corralling as many of those manufacturers as possible into licensing agreements.
The ITC hearing comes at a particularly auspicious time. Google recently announced its decision to acquire Motorola Mobility for $12.5 billion. In addition to acquiring a hardware arm, Google also inherits a broad array of wireless technology patents that could provide useful cover against its rivals' legal assault on Android. Whether that holds true in practice remains to be seen.
"Microsoft is one of the world's most innovative companies, and we have a responsibility to our employees, customers, partners and shareholders to safeguard our intellectual property," David Howard, Microsoft's corporate vice president and deputy general counsel for litigation, wrote in a statement. "Motorola is infringing on our patents, and we are confident that the ITC will rule in our favor."
That echoes Microsoft's language deployed in similar Android disputes.
Motorola Mobility, meanwhile, has retaliated with a host of lawsuits accusing Microsoft of intellectual-property violations. "We have also brought legal actions of our own in the U.S. and in Europe to address Microsoft's large scale of infringement of Motorola Mobility's patents," Jennifer Erickson, a Motorola Mobility spokesperson, wrote in an Aug. 22 statement emailed to Bloomberg.
But Google's intent to acquire Motorola Mobility may not help its case. Indeed, Microsoft has asked the ITC to exercise its ability to stop the handset maker's imports into the United States. Should that come to pass, it could prove especially awkward for the search-engine giant.
"If regulatory scrutiny delays the closing of the acquisition, Google could end up buying a company that is formally enjoined from importing Android-based devices into the United States," Florian Mueller, an intellectual property analyst, wrote in an Aug. 15 posting on his blog. "In that kind of scenario, Google might come under pressure from its own shareholders to consider paying the huge $2.5 billion breakup fee."
A few days later, he tweeted: "No one who claims [Motorola Mobility] is patent protection has any plausible explanation for why [Microsoft] and Apple attacked [Motorola Mobility] out of 39 Android device makers."
However, other analysts feel that Google's acquisition could provide Motorola Mobility-and other Android makers-with something resembling legal air cover.
"By purchasing Motorola Mobility, and becoming a hardware manufacturer itself, Google is putting itself in the sights of those filing lawsuits," Allen Nogee, research director for In-Stat, wrote in an Aug. 15 research note, "which will not only allow it to defend against those lawsuits directly, but will also likely reduce the number of lawsuits over time, since rivals may be less inclined to sue well-financed Google than some of its hardware partners."
The ITC case is titled "In the Matter of Certain Mobile Devices, Associated Software and Components Thereof, 337-744, U.S. International Trade Commission (Washington)."