Friday, November 21, 2014

Google and Android OEMs apparently close to settlement with Rockstar over ex-Nortel patents

About a year after the Rockstar Consortium's Halloween 2013 lawsuits against Google and a host of Android device makers, and only days after a $188 million settlement between Rockstar and Cisco became known, the most likely outcome is now that Rockstar's pending cases against Google and various Android OEMs will be settled at a relatively early procedural stage.

Four days ago, Rockstar filed an unopposed motion in its Google case (over search engine patents, which is separate from the Android cases) for a 45-day stay, which was subsequently granted. The motion said the following about the current state of affairs:

"[O]n November 12, 2014 a binding Term Sheet was executed that settles, in principle, all matters in controversy between the parties. [...] [T]he Term Sheet is [being] reduced to a definitive agreement. [The 45-day stay] is necessary due to the complexity of the transaction and the number of additional parties whose claims are concurrently being resolved."

There are no additional parties to the case over search engine patents besides Rockstar, its NetStar Technologies subsidiary, and Google as the sole defendant. However, there are many parties to the Android cases (devices makers like Samsung, LG, HTC, and ZTE), making a comprehensive settlement involving not only search engine but also wireless patents the only plausible interpretation of that passage.

Absent a settlement, all of the key issues in the Android context would be resolved in the Northern District of California, the venue preferred by Google and its partners. In the declaratory judgment action in California, a report was filed in early November, saying that the parties engaged in court-ordered mediation but reached no settlement. However, it is possible that the mediation meeting nevertheless had a positive effect. It probably also helped the parties to know in which court the infringement and validity determinations would be made.

It would be out of character for Google to make a huge payment at an early stage of a patent litigation (though there's always the possibility of something happening for the first time in history). It's also unlikely that pretrial discovery has given the parties definitive clarity about the likely outcome. So I can't imagine that the impending settlement would be a win across the board for Rockstar. The two most likely scenarios are either a win-win (Google and its partners can put this thing behind them for an amount that's worth it while Rockstar can produce some revenues that help the acquirers of Nortel's patents offset some of their costs) or a set of terms under which Rockstar lets Google and its partners off the hook at a rather low cost. Should the latter be the case, then it would most likely be attributable to dwindling support for Rockstar's lawsuits among its owners.

While no single shareholder (not even Apple, which contributed most of the funding) will be singlehandedly in the position to tell Rockstar's management what to do, it's possible that a couple of shareholders have demanded that those cases be settled. Protracted and potentially acrimonious litigation could have resulted in negative publicity for Rockstar's owners (a key difference between Rockstar and "patent trolls" who have no affiliation at all with any operating company).

Also, Rockstar's management and/or shareholders may have found Google's proposed terms more acceptable than initially. After all, smartphone patent lawsuits typically don't give plaintiffs tremendous leverage.

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