Sprint Nextel has filed a patent infringement lawsuit against independent Internet phone companies Vonage and Voiceglo.
Detailed in the suit are seven patents, four of which pertain to systems and equipment for telecommunications control, including how signals are processed through a network, and how user communication is routed into a device. The other three concern the use of broadband in telecommunications systems.
Sprint Nextel Corp. is seeking monetary damages and an injunction to keep Vonage Holdings Corp. and Voiceglo Holdings Inc. from using the technology named in the patents, while the issue of patent rights is being decided. Debra Peterson, Sprint Nextel spokesperson, said that the lawsuit is something of a last resort, since the company has been attempting to resolve the dispute amicably for the past year.
"Weve been attempting to negotiate with these companies for some time, because we prefer not to have to go to court," said Peterson. "But theyve chosen to not respond to our efforts to discuss these potential licensing agreements."
Ed Cespedes, president of Voiceglo, said, "I wouldnt call it negotiation. They sent us a CD-ROM full of patents that they thought we might be violating, and eventually they whittled it down to seven."
Voiceglo chose not to enter talks with Sprint Nextel because the Internet phone company has several of its own patents in pending status, and didnt want to open its portfolio for Sprint Nextels perusal, noted Cespedes.
"When doing something thats disruptive to incumbent players, you have to be careful before allowing Sprint or anyone else to look at your intellectual property," he stated. "Also, I dont believe were abusing any Sprint patents, and entering into negotiation would have been tantamount to saying were in violation."
Cespedes added that it found it "highly interesting" that Sprint Nextel is going after two independent providers, considering that the patents in question affect would every VOIP provider, in his opinion.
As the lawsuit goes forward, it is likely that many more VOIP patent suits will follow in its wake. Now that the technology has advanced from an emerging technology to a full-blown product and service, patents that were once pending are now being approved, and enforcement should soon follow.
"As technologies evolve, patents get published," said Michael Schneider, an intellectual property attorney with Seattle-based DLA Piper Rudnick Gray Cary. "Theres a dark period where no one knows what patents are pending, and when that time period passes, its easy to look at the landscape and see where potential conflicts are occurring."
VOIP will likely yield hundreds of thousands of patents, Schneider added, meaning that no single company will end up with exclusive rights to a large portion of the technology. With so many companies building up their intellectual property portfolios, Schneider anticipates that many more suits like the Sprint Nextel action will occur.
Sprint Nextel may also pursue more litigation in the future as VOIP becomes more important to the company, said Forrester Research analyst Charles Golvin. The company has been pursuing more deals with cable companies in order act as a VOIP broker, which could cause them to focus more intently on patent enforcement.
"VOIP will be a very important technology for Sprint Nextel going forward," said Golvin. "Theyll be continuing to try and develop that business and make deals based on it, so patent protection is likely to be part of their plan."