Wednesday, February 19, 2014

HTC, LG, ASUSTeK, Pantech join Samsung in moving for dismissal of Rockstar Android lawsuits

A week ago I reported and commented on Samsung's motion to dismiss the patent infringement lawsuit brought against it by the Rockstar Consortium and its MobileStar Technologies subsidiary in the Eastern District of Texas. The next day ASUSTeK brought a motion raising the same issues (alleged invalidity of one patent and, which has potentially broader implications, lack of standing at the time the lawsuit was filed). Yesterday HTC, LG and Pantech followed suit. Technically, due to the AIA's joinder rule, each defendant faces a different Rockstar lawsuit, though the issues are near-identical, except that the case Rockstar brought against Google itself (apart from the fact that Google was later added as a co-defendant to the Samsung case) is about search engine patents.

Of the seven Android device makers sued on Halloween, one (Huawei) has settled, five (firstly Samsung, then ASUSTeK, HTC, LG, Pantech) have brought motions to dismiss, and one (ZTE) has yet to respond. Presumably ZTE will also move for dismissal, unless it settles before.

What we're seeing here is just the overture in the form of a venue fight. Google filed a declaratory judgment action in the Northern District of California shortly before Christmas. Google's partners are meanwhile trying to get the Texas cases dismissed, which would make the California action the first-filed case. At the same time, Rockstar is trying to win the dismissal of the California lawsuit, arguing that there's no point in litigation in two districts "when a single suit in Texas, combined with six existing suits in Texas, can fully safeguard Google's interest".

In each case in which a motion to dismiss should fail, we're going to see a motion to transfer venue. In its reply brief in California, Rockstar has already described a transfer motion as "the predictable next step should this [California] case survive a motion to dismiss", and Rockstar and MobileStar "of course, reserve the right to file such a motion, if necessary, at an appropriate time".

From what I heard (from a major industry player who is neither a client of mine nor a party to Rockstar's Google/Android-related cases), Judge Rodney Gilstrap, who is presiding over the Rockstar-Android cases in Texas, is notoriously unwilling to transfer cases out of his court to other districts, but some defendants have apparently won such transfers through petitions for writ of mandamus filed with the Federal Circuit. We may very well see one or more mandamus petitions in this context as well. I believe these defendants won't leave a stone unturned in their attempts to move the matter out of Texas.

While all of this delays resolution of the actual infringement issues, even the procedural maneuvering that is going on at this stage does involve some arguments touching on the substance of these cases. In last week's reply brief by Rockstar in California I found the following passage particularly interesting:

"C. Google Is Incorrect That Rockstar's Claims Concern Only Android

Throughout its opposition, Google argues that the asserted patents in this action and the Texas litigation concern solely the Android operating system. [...] This is misleading and mistaken. Rockstar and MobileStar are accusing various mobile devices that, while including the Android operating system, also include hardware and software components that infringe Rockstar and MobileStar patents, not the Android operating system alone. [...] For example, at least one patent (U.S. Patent No. 5,838,551) asserted against these mobile devices in the Texas actions has nothing to do with their operating system, but is directed solely to a type of component contained in those devices.

For this reason, Google is mistaken in invoking the customer-suit exception to the first-to-file rule. That exception applies only 'where the first suit is filed against a customer who is simply a reseller of the accused goods, while the second suit is a declaratory action brought by the manufacturer of the accused goods.' [...] Here, the Texas defendants are not resellers of devices or Android operating systems obtained from Google, but rather design, manufacture, and sell the devices themselves (which use the Android operating system). [...] This is hardly the situation of a patentee taking advantage of a customer who unknowingly purchased an infringing product from a manufacturer.

In any event, Google cannot have it both ways. If Google wishes to paint the Texas litigation as a direct assault on Google itself, then Google cannot plausibly hold out this suit as the 'first-filed' case. It is undoubtedly the second-filed case under any logical view of the substance of each suit."

The '551 patent covers an "electronic package carrying an electronic component and assembly of mother board and electronic package", which is obviously Android-unrelated. I'm still going to refer, for the sake of brevity, to these cases as the "Rockstar Android lawsuits" because all defendants have in common that they make Android-based devices and because most of the asserted patents are allegedly infringed by Android itself. When I say "Rockstar Android lawsuits", I mean "Rockstar's lawsuits against six (originally seven) Android OEMs". But for the legal question of whether a dismissal or transfer is warranted, the distinction must be made, and I do agree with Rockstar that Android device makers -- rather large and sophisticated companies, by the way -- can't be compared to the targets of typical customer suits such as hotels or restaurants offering WiFi access.

The potential scope and usefulness of a customer suit exception is also a hotly contested issue in the ongoing U.S. patent reform debate.

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