Opinion

Alison Frankel

Microsoft win in rate-setting case vs Motorola is call to litigation

Alison Frankel
Apr 26, 2013 22:15 UTC

For the first time ever, a federal district judge has decided what constitutes a reasonable license rate for a portfolio of standard-essential patents. U.S. District Judge James Robart ruled late Thursday that Motorola is entitled to royalties of a half cent per unit for Microsoft’s use of standard-essential video compression patents and 3.5 cents per unit for Motorola’s wireless communication patents. According to Microsoft, those terms would require it to pay Motorola a grand total of about $1.8 million a year in royalties – a far cry indeed from the billions Motorola requested in a royalty demand to Microsoft in 2010. It’s still to be determined at a trial this summer whether Motorola breached its obligation to license its essential technology to Microsoft on reasonable terms. But make no mistake: Robart’s ruling on reasonable royalties is a dreadful outcome for Motorola and its parent, Google.

In fact, there’s a good argument that the framework Robart used to determine a fair royalty rate is bad news for all patent holders that depend on license fees for essential technology. Until the smart device wars, when Microsoft and Apple balked at Motorola’s licensing demands, product makers generally considered themselves to be at the mercy of companies that developed essential technology adopted by international standard-setting boards. Robart’s ruling, if it is eventually upheld by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, gives so-called implementers like Microsoft and Apple not only the methodology to whittle down patent holders’ licensing demands but also a recourse if negotiations stall. Implementers now know they can go to court and ask a judge to decide a fair royalty based on the relative value of essential patents to their final product. We’ve already seen courts and regulators blunt the threat of injunctions by holders of standard-essential patents. Robart’s decision shifts the balance of power even further away from patent holders.

To understand why, let’s run quickly through the findings in the 207-page opinion. The judge said early on that he agreed with Motorola’s lawyers at Ropes & Gray and The Summit Law Group that the best way to set a fair royalty rate would be to consider a hypothetical bilateral negotiation. He rejected Microsoft’s proposed “incremental value” approach, which would have based the value of essential patents on the cost of adopting alternative technology. But that was just about the only positive aspect of the ruling for Motorola.

Robart proceeded to analyze the relative significance of Motorola’s patents to the two standard-essential technologies at issue in the case, one involving video compression and the other wireless communication. Motorola’s role in both, Robart found, was minor. Of the thousands of contributions to each technology, Motorola was responsible for 16 patents related to the video compression standard and 24 to the standard wireless communications technology. The company presented “scant evidence” at a bench trial last November that its patents were at the core of either standard, Robart said.

Nor, he found, was Motorola’s IP at the core of any Microsoft products. Motorola’s video compression patents, the judge said, involve technology that’s increasingly irrelevant in the marketplace. (Even Google doesn’t use the Motorola tech on its Android platform or at YouTube.) And the 11 Motorola wireless communications patents incorporated in Microsoft products are only minimally important, according to the judge. Those factors would undermine the value of Motorola’s IP in a hypothetical negotiation, Robart said.

Apple and Motorola talk arbitration. End in sight to patent war?

Alison Frankel
Nov 20, 2012 22:24 UTC

In the two weeks since U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb of Madison, Wisconsin, unceremoniously tossed Apple’s breach-of-contract against Motorola just as a trial to determine a fair licensing rate for Motorola’s standard-essential wireless tech patents was to begin, Apple’s lawyers at Covington & Burling andTensegrity Law Group have been struggling to persuade the judge to change her mind and dismiss the case without prejudice. I already told you about the bench memo Apple submitted on Nov. 5, after Crabb said at a hearing that if Apple wouldn’t agree to abide by the licensing rate she set, she would dismiss its declaratory judgment and specific performance claims. Apple argued, in essence, that since Crabb was dismissing on jurisdictional grounds, she hadn’t reached the merits of Apple’s case, so she couldn’t preclude Apple from refiling its claims. Apple repeated those arguments in a brief filed last week, responding to a Nov. 14 brief by Motorola’s lawyers at Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan that urged Crabb to stick by her decision to toss the case with prejudice. “No litigant,” Motorola wrote, “should be permitted to try to engineer a judgment to its liking on the eve of the trial, then seek to walk away so that it can reengineer and refile its claims elsewhere, at some later date.”

That might seem like the same old bomb-throwing by two companies that have spent the last three years (and untold millions of dollars) attempting to litigate the other’s smart devices into oblivion, but last week’s briefing, as well as another brief Motorola filed Monday, revealed something new: a tantalizing step toward arbitration that could be, to quote Winston Churchill, the end of the beginning of the smartphone patent wars.

Don’t get too excited, because Apple and Motorola are still squabbling over the terms of such an arbitration. But here’s where things stand. At the Nov. 5 hearing before Crabb, Motorola suggested, apparently for the first time in open court, that it would be willing to submit to binding arbitration to set a fair and reasonable licensing rate for both its portfolio of patents essential to wireless technology and Apple’s corresponding portfolio. Apple General Counsel Bruce Sewell followed up with a letter on Nov. 8 to Motorola GC Kent Walker(cc’ing Google lawyer David Drummond). “Your offer to arbitrate made before Judge Crabb on November 5, 2012, was … welcome news,” the Apple letter said. “We agree to arbitrate the value of mutual licenses to our respective (standard-essential patent) portfolios.”

Motorola loses bid to reshape crucial trial on essential patents

Alison Frankel
Oct 11, 2012 22:22 UTC

The next great turning point in the war for global device domination comes next month, when Motorola faces two trials – one against Apple, the other against Microsoft – that will determine its ability to use its portfolio of standard-essential patents as leverage in IP disputes with its competitors. I’ve been harping on this theme for a while, but trials have a way of sharpening the issues. Both of these cases will be tried to judges, not juries, so we won’t get immediate results. But when U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb in Madison, Wisconsin, and U.S. District Judge James Robart in Seattle issue rulings, Motorola and its rivals should have a very clear understanding of how valuable Motorola’s patents on essential wireless technology are.

The Apple trial — which will decide whether Motorola breached its agreements with international standard-setting bodies by failing to license essential technology to Apple on fair and reasonable terms — is scheduled to begin in Wisconsin on Nov. 5, but the Microsoft case in Seattle, which begins on Nov. 13, could hold greater industrywide interest. When he denied summary judgment to both Microsoft and Motorola in June, Robart said he needed more information about what exactly constitutes a fair licensing deal on standard-essential technology before he could ask a jury to decide whether Motorola breached its obligation to license its IP to Microsoft. He called for a bench trial to determine a reasonable royalty rate — an exercise that will likely expose Motorola’s licensing agreements with other counterparties and will certainly give every other Motorola licensee a starting point in future negotiations.

Over the summer, Motorola’s lawyers at Ropes & Gray and the Summit Law Group attempted to reshape the bench trial before Robart. In a motion for summary judgment they filed in July, the Motorola lawyers said that Robart’s proposed rate-setting exercise would improperly set the terms of a contract that does not exist between Microsoft and Motorola. “There is no existing licensing contract between Motorola and Microsoft,” they wrote. “Instead, Motorola submits that there is simply a right to a license. Thus, there is no existing contract for the court to interpret or in which the court can merely ‘fill in’ gaps.”

Samsung goes after jury foreman in bid to reverse Apple verdict

Alison Frankel
Sep 27, 2012 04:02 UTC

By Alison Frankel and Dan Levine

Samsung doesn’t want you to know why it believes juror misconduct tainted the $1.05 billion verdict that a San Jose federal court jury delivered to Apple in August. Its lawyers at Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan redacted that entire section of the motion for judgment as a matter of law that they filed Friday with U.S. District Judge Lucy Koh in San Jose, California. But from a close examination of the statute and cases Samsung cited in the redacted section, we’ve discerned Samsung’s two-pronged argument for juror misconduct: The nine-person jury improperly considered extraneous evidence during deliberations and jury foreman Velvin Hogan failed to disclose in voir dire that he was involved in 1993 litigation with a former employer that led him and his wife to declare personal bankruptcy.

In an exclusive interview Tuesday about Samsung’s secret new allegations, Hogan, an engineer, confirmed that he was a party in two cases cited in Samsung’s brief, a 1993 case from municipal court in Santa Cruz titled Seagate Technology v. Hogan and a 1993 federal bankruptcy case titled In re Velvin R. Hogan. According to Hogan, when Seagate hired him in the 1980s and he moved from Colorado to California, his new employer agreed to split the cost of paying off the mortgage on his Colorado home. But after Hogan was laid off in the early 1990s, he told us, Seagate claimed he owed the company that money. Hogan said he sued Seagate for fraud, Seagate countersued, and he ultimately declared personal bankruptcy to protect his house.

Can Quinn Emanuel credibly argue that Koh needs to hold a hearing to determine whether Hogan’s failure to disclose the 1993 litigation is grounds to throw out an unrelated patent infringement verdict for Apple? Again, we don’t know precisely what Samsung’s argument is, but several of the cases it cited in the new brief’s table of authorities concern juror bias and the failure to disclose relevant information in the jury selection process. In U.S. v. Perkins, for instance, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in 1984 that the defendant in a criminal obstruction of justice case was entitled to a new trial because a juror didn’t reveal that he had previously been both a defendant in a civil case over stolen union funds and a witness in a criminal case involving the firebombing of a union hall. In a 1989 2nd Circuit ruling called U.S. v. Colombo, the court called for an evidentiary hearing on whether a juror deliberately failed to disclose that her brother-in-law was a government prosecutor in order to get on the jury, and held that if she hid her ties to the government, convictions in a huge Mafia racketeering case must be vacated.

Apple and Microsoft v. Google: patent war shifts to antitrust

Alison Frankel
Apr 4, 2012 19:27 UTC

In a really smart piece last month, my Reuters pal Dan Levine wrote that Steve Jobs’ promise to kill Google’s Android operating system has not been fulfilled. Instead, wrote Levine and co-author Poornima Gupta, Apple’s patent war against Android users Motorola, Samsung, and HTC had become “a costly global war of attrition.” Both sides have won skirmishes, but no battle has been decisive. The Reuters story quoted Judge Richard Posner of the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, who is overseeing a Motorola case in U.S. District Court in Chicago. “You’re not going to shut down the smartphone,” Posner told Apple’s lawyer. “[And] they’re not going to shut down the iPhone.”

The exact same thing could be said of Microsoft’s patent war with Google and its Android acolytes. When the smartphone patent infringement cases launched in 2009 and 2010, maybe it was feasible that one or two of the big three could kill off another of them. But since then, with Apple and Microsoft teaming up to buy Nortel patents and Google countering with its purchase of Motorola Mobility, this war has become a standoff that can only be resolved with cross-licensing deals.

That’s why antitrust arguments — as opposed to patent infringement claims — have been creeping into the spotlight over the last few months. On Tuesday, the European Union announced that it has opened antitrust investigations of Motorola’s demands for licensing fees on standard-setting patents, following complaints by both Microsoft and Apple. (Google’s Android partners, of course, have lobbed similar allegations of patent extortion at Microsoft.) The goal of such claims is to drive down the cost of licensing one another’s patents. In other words, if you can’t beat ‘em, pay as little as possible to join ‘em.

Patent troll Oasis under attack on two fronts in Texas megacase

Alison Frankel
Sep 16, 2011 22:05 UTC

This summer, thanks to NPR’s This American Life, a patent holding company called Oasis Research became one of the most famous patent trolls in the land. The brilliant radio segment, When Patents Attack! (also available as a Planet Money print story), homed in on a sweeping patent for “an online back-up system,” which Oasis acquired from Intellectual Ventures in July 2010 and proceeded to assert in an Eastern District of Texas case against a dozen tech defendants. When NPR’s reporters tried to find out who or what Oasis is, they struck out. No one answered the door at Oasis’s deserted “office” in Marshall, Texas, and the company’s lead lawyer, John Desmarais of Desmarais LLP, politely declined to answer NPR’s questions when the reporters tracked him down at a tech IP conference. (He also declined, via e-mail, to answer mine for this story.)

But even as NPR exposed the troll, Oasis was winning key rulings in the East Texas case, which featured EMC, AT&T, and GoDaddy.com, among lots of other defendants. In May, federal magistrate Amos Mazzant recommended that Judge Michael Schneider deny the defendants’ motions to sever Oasis’s claims. In July, the judge adopted the magistrate’s recommendations. In August, Oasis’s Desmarais lawyers filed an amended complaint, asserting infringement of four patents in more than 100 claims against 12 defendants.

The defendants fought back on two fronts. EMC filed a petition at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, asking the appellate court to reverse Judge Schneider’s ruling on the question of joinder. “The district court committed clear error,” EMC’s petition said, “by allowing [Oasis] to join many unrelated companies in a single infringement action based merely on an allegation that the companies each independently offer the same type of service. In doing so, the district court endorses an increasingly common practice of nonpracticing entities who file patent infringement suits in the Eastern District of Texas. Their newest tactic is to sue a large number of unrelated and geographically dispersed defendants, accuse them of infringing the same patent without regard to service or product differences, resist severance, and then oppose transfer of the action to a different forum.”

Intellectual Ventures hit Hynix, Elpida with second IP suit

Alison Frankel
Jul 12, 2011 13:54 UTC

Last December, when Nathan Myhrvold’s ginormous patent-aggregator Intellectual Ventures filed its first three patent infringement suits, it seemed as though a dam had broken. Between the time IV was founded in 2000 until last December, the company had spent hundreds of millions of dollars to acquire some 30,000 patents — but it had never filed a suit to enforce them. IV instead relied on the leverage of its vast portfolio to make licensing deals. The tech world wondered whether the December infringement suits were the first trickles of what would become a river of litigation.

They weren’t. IV quietly went back to business as usual. But on Monday Intellectual Ventures struck again, filing a new patent infringement complaint in Seattle federal court, as well as a complaint at the U.S. International Trade Commission. The new suits name Hynix and Elpida, the computer memory manufacturers, as well as computer makers that use their products (including Acer, Dell, Hewlett-Packard, and Logitech) and stores that sell them (Wal-Mart and Best Buy). IV accuses Hynix and Elpida of infringing five of its patents and inducing the other defendants to infringe. The five patents in the Seattle case do not overlap with the seven patents IV asserted against Hynix and Elpida in Delaware.

IV has added a new firm to its roster of outside counsel: The Seattle suit will be handled by Irell & Manella, as well as Seattle counsel from Black Lowe & Graham. Weil, Gotshal & Manges represents IV in its Delaware suit against Hynix and Elpida; in the other two Delaware cases, Susman Godrey and Desmarais LLP represent IV.

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