Sunday, December 18, 2011

British Telecom sues Google over six U.S. patents allegedly infringed by Android and various Google services

After Apple, Oracle, Microsoft, and eBay, British Telecommunications plc (commonly referred to as "British Telecom" or simply "BT") has just become the fifth large publicly-traded company to bring patent infringement litigation against Android. (By "large" I mean companies with a market capitalizations in the tens or hundreds or billions of dollars, not even counting Gemalto, a company worth €3 billion that is suing Google as well as the three leading Android handset makers.)

BT filed its lawsuit on Thursday with the United States District Court for the District of Delaware:

11-12-15 BT v Google Complaint

BT seeks damages -- even triple damages for willful and deliberate infringement -- as well as an injunction. The complaint suggests that Google refused to pay. The second sentence of paragraph 21 states that "BT brings this action to recover the just compensation it is owed and to prevent Google from continuing to benefit from BT's ivnentions without authorization".

BT brings this action at a time when Google is trying to close its acquisition of Motorola Mobility. Whether BT already has a cross-license deal in place with MMI or simply doesn't believe MMI has any patents with which Google can effectively strike back, it's clear that BT decided to assert its rights at any rate.

I don't know yet whether BT also brought litigation in Europe over local equivalents of those patents. It would certainly make sense to take advantage of the swift and rather patent holder-friendly decisions taken by certain German courts in order to get Google to pay sooner rather than later.

With so many major patent holders asserting their rights, obligations to pay royalties may force Google to change its Android licensing model and pass royalties on to device makers.

Patents-in-suit and accused technologies

These are the six patents-in-suit and the related infringement allegations:

  • U.S. Patent No. 6,151,309 on a "service provision system for communications networks"

    According to BT's complaint, "embodiments of the invention include providing services by means of a combination of communications networks in spite of differing capabilities on the bandwidth that is available in certain mobile networks", with Google Music and Android offering "representative examples of Google's infringement" of this patent. The complaint states that "Google Music maintains data relating to whether a particular music service is available or unavailable to its user based on whether is located in, and connected to, a WiFi hotspot or a cellular data network". It also says that certain file download and upload services related to Android are available based on whether a user has a WiFi or cellular connection. "For example, a Google Android user can choose his or her settings to allow downloading of a file in Browser and Android Market only whe the user is located in a WiFi hotspot and his or her device is connected to that hotspot."

  • U.S. Patent No. 6,169,515 on a "navigation information system"

    This patent covers "a navigation system which includes a fixed part and at least one mobile part to provide guidance information to a user". Simply put, whatever information is available on the mobile device can be complemented or enhanced with "current information" (such as route and traffic information) that is transferred over a mobile connection.

    BT complains that "Google Maps determines the location of the user in relation to one or more discrete predetermined map overlay areas" and then "transmits guidance information pertaining to public transportation stops, tourist attractions and local facilities present in an overlay area to all users within that overlay area", and does the same for "traffic and route guidance".

  • U.S. Patent No. 6,397,040 on a "telecommunications apparatus and method"

    According to the complaint, this patent covers the generation and transmission of "shortlists of sources of information dependent upon the location of a user", which lists "may relate to sources of information respecitng services, facilities, friends and transportation and may be generated in accordance with user preferences".

    That sounds broad, and accordingly, infringement allegations are brought against Google Maps, Google Search, Google Places, Google's location-based advertising, Google Offers, and the Google+ social network.

  • U.S. Patent No. 6,578,079 on a "communications node for providing network based information service"

    According to BT, this patent covers "a network-based information service in a communications network by storing customer identities, respective customer-associated lists of identifies of information itemts for which the respective associated customer has access rights, and identifies of item-associated information sources which store the respective items". This is, essentially, a digital rights management patent.

    The accused technologies include the Android Market app store, Google Books and Google Music. For example, the complaint states that "Google's Android Market utilizes user identities in Google's servers, maintains a list of items (e.g., Android apps, movies and books) that each user can access, and, for each such item, provides the identity of the source of the item's contents". Following a login or the transmission of an authentication token, Google "offers the lsit of items that the user is entitled to access", and retrieves any such items at the user's request.

  • U.S. Patent No. 6,650,284 on an "information system"

    This one is derived from the '515 ("navigation information system") patent described further above and adds the particular feature of "providing information to a mobile part in which the route may be affected by a physical characteristic of the vehicle with which the mobile part is associated".

    The complaint argues that Google Maps proposes different routes based on "the user's mode of transportation (e.g., bicycle or car)", which is correct.

  • U.S. Patent No. 6,826,598 on a "storage and retrieval of location based information in a distributed network of data storage devices"

    BT claims that this patent "allows for rapid storage and retrieval of location-specific information stored across the distributed network where such information is accessible simultaneously from a pluarlity of remote user terminals". BT sees an infringement in Google Maps and Google Maps Navigation providing different levels of specificity at different zoom levels, making some information available at multiple zoom levels and other information only at a particular level. BT also complains that "the locality of interest for location-based information source is determined as a function of a mobile user's speed of travel" or "direction of travel".

Android already had more than enough intellectual problems anyway. Now Google faces one more large organization that believes its rights are infringed. BT probably wants to continue to be able to do business with all mobile device makers and therefore decided to sue Google itself.

Apple is suing HTC over a former BT patent

Android was previously hit by litigation over a BT patent, but the related complaint was brought by Apple five months ago. In its second ITC complaint against HTC, Apple is asserting a "portable computers" patent it acquired from BT in 2008.

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