Fighting the IPR war

The decision by Nokia and Qualcomm to end their legal battle over patents, reported in this issue of FierceWireless:Europe, has prompted some thoughts on the issue of Intellectual Property Rights (IPR). Over the last decade many of the biggest names in the wireless arena have got themselves involved in legal tussles over IPR. Qualcomm has the reputation of being the most litigious but Motorola, Nokia and Ericsson are among many others who have launched platoons of lawyers in defence of what they see as their property. Virtually all IPR legal battles have the same characteristics; they involve concepts and technologies that hardly anyone understands; they drag on for years without apparent progress or resolution; and when they are resolved the decisions always seem to be taken in minor district court houses usually located in Texas. In many ways the efforts of companies to protect their IPR are understandable. After all, they have spent considerable sums of money in R&D creating new technologies so they should be allowed to enjoy the benefits. At heart however the IPR argument is about money, lots and lots of money. For some companies the revenues from licencing their intellectual property far exceed the revenues from their supposed core business. With the mobile market continuing to expand IPR revenues can only continue to increase.

Unfortunately a downside to IPR battles is that they can inhibit market growth by restricting the ability of companies to bring new technologies to the market. For example, there are now more than three billion subscribers worldwide using GSM mobile phones yet there are still ongoing IPR disputes involving aspects of GSM technology. If the companies involved had not agreed to proceed with launching GSM and then try and resolve their IPR issues later then the massive global mobile phone market might never have happened--or at least happened more slowly.

To be fair to the mobile industry it does recognise that IPR is a major problem and is trying to do something about it. Everyone is very keen that Long Term Evolution (LTE) should succeed and to that end 3GPP and ETSI have launched various initiatives which would essentially forestall IPR-related disputes in connection with LTE. Many of the companies involved in LTE development have agreed to go along with these initiatives but history proves these early signs of common sense may prove illusory. Regrettably IPR disputes seem to be like death and taxes--always with us. -Ian