Monday, August 8, 2011

Is a patent war between Apple and LG brewing?

PatentlyApple (my favorite blog on new patents granted to Apple) reported this weekend on what appears to be the umpteenth "troll" lawsuit against Apple but might be an early indicator of another patent war between Apple and an Android device manufacturer: LG Electronics.

PatentlyApple looked into a lawsuit filed against Apple on Friday by Florida-based Operating Systems Solutions, LLC -- a company no one heard of before -- with the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida over U.S. Patent No. RE40,092 on a "method for quickly booting a computer system". This reissue patent changed hands twice within Korea before being sold in March to Operating System Solutions, LLC. That patent stems from another patent, and the original invention was made by an LG employee and assigned to LG. The assignment record for U.S. Patent No. 6,434,696 partly overlaps with the one for the reissued patent.

There are two distinct possibilities. It's conceivable that LG determined that this patent was not central to its business and divested it. Big companies make divestments of this kind all the time. But with the smartphone patent wars going on, companies usually look to buy -- not sell -- patents. The other -- potentially more meaningful -- alternative is that this previously-unheard-of Florida-based plaintiff could be a proxy steered by LG. In that case, this would be either a warning shot or the beginning of a wider conflict between Apple and LG, which the latter may deem inevitable.

It happened before that an Android device maker sued Apple as a pre-emptive strike, winning the race to the courthouse while Apple's lawsuit was still in the making. Motorola sued Apple in early October, but that lawsuit looked like a pre-emptive strike from the beginning. And a few months later there were 42 patents in action between the two.

LG's Android-based products have already drawn lawsuits from various patent holders such as Alcatel-Lucent, Vertical Computer Systems, Hopewell Culture & Design, and MyPort IP. Those are lawsuits in which some of LG's Android-based products are explicitly named. In addition, Sony filed an ITC complaint in December 2010 against a host of LG phones. While none of the ones explicitly named in that complaint was Android-based, there's the usual "including but not limited to" language, and it's reasonably likely that at least some of the patents asserted by Sony also read on LG's Android-based devices. Therefore, if Sony obtained an ITC import ban, it would presumably also affect those Android-based products. In retaliation for that ITC complaint, LG filed several actions against Sony, not only in the U.S. but also in the Netherlands, where 300,000 PlayStations were temporarily seized.

We will see whether there's going to be any direct litigation between Apple and LG. In case it happens, we'll probably see some rapid global escalation similar to what occurred between Samsung and Apple, which are now suing each other in nine countries on four continents. LG also owns patents in many countries around the globe and litigates very aggressively.

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