Battle of the bans

The dark cloud looming over Qualcomm grew even more ominous last week when Nokia ripped a page from the Broadcom playbook, petitioning the U.S. International Trade Commission to ban the importation of Qualcomm chips that Nokia asserts violate five of its CDMA and W-CDMA/GSM patents. According to Nokia, Qualcomm engaged in unfair trade practices by infringing on Nokia's patents after a 15-year licensing agreement between the two companies expired in April. Next month, the ITC is also scheduled to hear Qualcomm's rival petition to ban the import of Nokia GSM phones--at the same time, Qualcomm is still scrambling to come up with a last-ditch legal or technical solution to minimize the impact of the ITC's June chip ban favoring Broadcom. And as for Nokia, it faces a separate ITC battle of its own: Last week, wireless technologies developer InterDigital Inc. filed a complaint with the commission alleging that the handset giant infringed on two of its patents. (Got all that?)

Needless to say, there's blood in the water, and intellectual property owners large and small are moving in for the kill. The Broadcom/Qualcomm skirmish has identified the ITC as a legislative body ready, willing and able to thrust itself into the intellectual property debate, and while IP disputes are plainly within the scope of its authority, the commission is now the 800-pound gorilla dominating the mobile technology landscape, making decisions that are profoundly impacting the future of this business. According to its own website, the ITC "is NOT a court of law," but its rulings are no less meaningful or far-reaching, especially given its power to block imports and threaten product relationships with network operator heavyweights in the process. Which makes it all the more remarkable and puzzling that some of the biggest names in the industry are entrusting Washington to determine who owns what and who pays whom: Win or lose, that's a dangerous proposition. -Jason