Friday, January 4, 2013

NPE asserts foundational British Telecom patent against Apple, RIM, Android companies, carriers

BT (British Telecommunications) continues to aggressively monetize its wireless patent portfolio through direct and indirect litigation against other industry players. Today a non-practicing entity named Steelhead Licensing LLC filed a host of simultaneous lawsuits in the District of Delaware over a foundational wireless patent that belonged to BT until very recently, and I'd be very surprised if BT wasn't going to get a large cut of any licensing income Steelhead is now going to generate. The complaints were filed against nine handset makers (Apple, HTC, Kyocera, LG, Motorola Mobility, NEC, Pantech, RIM, Sony, ZTE) and five carriers (AT&T, MetroPCS, Sprint Nextel, T-Mobile).

The patent-in-suit is U.S. Patent No. 5,491,834 on a "mobile radio handover initiation determination". The complaints allege that devices implementing the 3G (UMTS) or 4G (LTE) cellular standards infringe this patent when performing a handover from one cell to the next -- it's hard to think of a more basic element of cellular wireless networks. It's unclear whether this patent is subject to any FRAND pledge made by BT with respect to standard-essential patents.

As of the time of publication of this post, the official assignment record for the patent still has only one entry: the original assignment by the inventor to British Telecommunications (presumably his then-employer) back in 1993. Steelhead Licensing now claims to own all substantial rights, so I'm sure an assignment by BT to Steelhead will soon be recorded in the USPTO assignments database. The reason for which the assignment doesn't appear in that database yet is presumably just a minor administrative delay.

Two months ago Google complained about BT using a patent troll as a front. BT is also suing Google directly over a number of patents.

I'm not going to follow Steelhead's lawsuits in detail unless any exceptionally interesting issues concerning post-transfer assertions of FRAND-pledged patents (if the patent-in-suit is an SEP, which is at least a possibility based on how the complaints are worded) come up as litigation unfolds.

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