Tuesday, January 18, 2022

After more than 12 years, HTC and Fortress's IPCom settle standard-essential patent dispute over former Bosch and Hitachi patents

I'm still waiting for an official confirmation of IPCom's recent "eight-figure US$ settlement deal" that IAM mentioned on Twitter, citing to "reports out of China." While I was on the lookout for that, I just spotted the following terse statement on IPCom's website that according to the timestamp went live yesterday afternoon:

"We are pleased to announce that HTC and IPCom have settled their long-running dispute by entering into a license agreement covering all of IPCom's assets."

What an understatement. In the standard-essential patent (SEP) space, any dispute that last more than two years is already "long-running" by my definition--and I doubt anyone watching that space would dispute that a four- or five-year patent spat is "long-running." This one here lasted more than a dozen years--an eternity that has finally come to an end.

Over the years I attended several IPCom v. HTC trials in Germany, mostly in Mannheim, where Deutsche Telekom recently sued for a refund to the tune of 270 million euros. HTC and Nokia were the first two smartphone makers IPCom sued after acquiring a 3G SEP portfolio from Bosch, a company that used to make phones but exited that business even earlier than the likes of Nokia and Ericsson. The fact that HTC and Nokia had to defend against many of the same patents turned those two competitors--otherwise rivals--into brothers-in-arms. In-house and outside counsel of both companies coordinated their defenses like they were one company. Even when Nokia sued HTC over non-SEPs in 2012 (and ultimately got HTC to pay some additional royalties), their friendship survived. They were seen drinking beer on high-speed trains from Mannheim to the Cologne-Dusseldorf region just hours after fighting hard in court.

While I occasionally disagreed with him and disapproved of a couple of remarks he made at the Nokia-HTC settlement party (after inviting me as a surprise keynote speaker), I do wish to give credit to the late Martin Chakraborty, a Hogan Lovells partner and HTC's outside counsel against IPCom and Nokia at the time.

Nokia once claimed that IPCom was seeking a royalty payment of 12 billion euros, which IPCom disputed. The IPCom v. Nokia dispute lost relevance as Nokia's smartphone sales were dwindling, and ultimately Microsoft took over Nokia's handset business. Microsoft told investors that "[i]n November 2014, Microsoft and IPCom entered into a standstill agreement staying all of the pending litigation against Microsoft to permit the parties to pursue settlement discussions," and somehow those talks eventually came to fruition.

Unlike Nokia, HTC even faced contempt proceedings when IPCom was enforcing an injunction. What IPCom demonstrated (and many other litigants don't even seem to know) is that it's far harder to actually enforce a SEP injunction in Germany than to obtain one. In the merits proceeding, you can base your infringement theory on the specification of the standard. At the enforcement stage, you have to prove an actual infringement. HTC had guts.

For IPCom's relatively new management, it's meaningful progress to put some cases behind that it inherited from its predecessors led by Munich-based patent litigator Bernhard "Bernie" Frohwitter. IPCom still has Fortress Investment as its key backer, but it's been noticeable for a couple of years that IPCom's new leadership has taken steps to position the organization--which by the way has its own researchers on staff who keep applying for new patents--as a constructive and solution-oriented licensing firm. They even emphasize corporate social responsibility in such contexts as diversity. The message is like "we're still a non-practicing entity, but don't call us a troll."

IPCom's agreements with HTC and (I'll take IAM's word for it) Apple show that the new IPCom is putting some old problems behind it and focusing on its future in the patent licensing industry. I'll be watching IPCom's activities with interest. There is an interesting parallel: Sisvel, which like IPCom is headquartered in Europe (though it has been around for much longer, and is also a pool administrator) and a "key account customer" of the Mannheim court, also appears to have a new leadership style versus where they were a decade ago. Sisvel announced some interesting settlements last year, most importantly with Xiaomi. Actions speak louder than words. Both IPCom and Sisvel have now demonstrated over the course of several years that their current leaders have nothing to do with exceedingly aggressive--or "trollish" if you will--tactics employed by their predecessors. They still enforce patents if they have to--but with a more constructive attitude.

I believe EU policy-makers have an interest in both Sisvel and IPCom doing well. They are the most prominent European patent licensing firms, and IP licensing is a very high priority when the EU defines its economic policies and strategies. At the same time, the EU also has to take the interests of major SEP implementers into account, of course.

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