Patent litigation has been exploding between technology giants, and nowhere is the trend more evident than among producers of mobile devices such as smart phones and tablets. You don’t have to look far to find high profile examples of these types of cases. While intellectual property law in general and patents specifically were designed to encourage innovation and reward useful new ideas, many experts are concerned that technology companies have been abusing patents in order to stifle innovation, rather than promote it. This is a particularly acute problem in the mobile technology industry because a single device could require the use of hundreds of patents, any one of which could create huge financial and logistical hurdles to device producers if the holder of that patent demands unreasonable compensation.
To combat this deluge of technology patent cases and the harm they can cause to consumers, The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) announced in a press release on July 6 that they will be convening a high-level summit on October 10, 2012 with standards organizations, key industry players, and government officials. These types of patents have traditionally operated on the basis of Reasonable and Non-Discriminatory Licensing (RAND), but existing policies are increasingly ignored and often contentious. RAND requires the holders of industry-standard patents to license them to competitors at reasonable rates as the caveat to having them accepted as industry standards. Given the fast-paced, competitive nature of information and communication technology, lackluster adherence and respect for licensing rules is extremely problematic—leading not only to expensive legal costs, but also legal decisions resulting in shipments of goods being impounded at docks in extreme cases.
Technology patents such as those that enable 3G internet are industry standards and necessary to the creation of virtually any smart phone, but many patent holders charge competitors that they have conflicts with much more than they do other firms. This type of behavior is clearly counter to the spirit of RAND and is also one of the primary issues ITU hopes to fix. It remains to be seen how productive this discussion will be, but it does at least provide hope that some of these issues will be resolved.
Finding the sweet spot between protecting legitimate interests in proprietary technology and enabling innovations to build on existing industry standards will be tricky indeed, but the ITU has enough clout that they may be able to bring everyone together to find an equitable solution. This will certainly merit keeping an eye on.