The smartphone scene just got a lot more litigious. Google and seven of its Android partners, including heavyweights like Samsung, LG, HTC, and Asus, have been sued by a company called Rockstar Consortium. The suit against Google alleges the infringement of six "associative search engine" patents, while the legal action filed against the Android partners involves patents covering a range of functions, including GUI navigation and integrated messaging.
You may not have heard of Rockstar Consortium, but as Ars Technica's coverage points out, you're definitely familiar with the companies behind it. Microsoft, Apple, Sony, Ericsson, and RIM formed Rockstar to purchase over 6,000 patents auctioned in the wake of Nortel's bankruptcy. Those firms combined to pay $4.5 billion for the portfolio, outbidding Google's own attempt to secure the patents. Now, those patents are being used against the Android giant. Google's bid to buy them could work against it in court, as well.
An earlier look at Rockstar published by Wired reveals that the consortiom is technically separate from its parent companies. Rockstar is basically the ultimate patent troll.
Because it doesn’t actually make anything, it can’t be countersued in patent cases. That wouldn’t be the case with Apple or Microsoft if they had kept the patents for themselves. And because it’s independent, it can antagonize its owners’ partners and customers in ways that its owner companies could not. “The principals have plausible deniability,” says Thomas Ewing, an attorney and intellectual property consultant. “They can say with a straight face: ‘They’re an independent company. We don’t control them.’ And there’s some truth to that.”
Interestingly, the US Department of Justice reportedly took issue with Rockstar's patent purchase but backed off when it was assured that Microsoft and Apple would "license many of their core wireless patents under reasonable terms to anyone who needed them." According to Rockstar CEO John Veschi, though, the patent firm isn't bound by the promises made by its parents. At the time, Veschi claimed that "it would be hard for me to envision that there are high-tech companies out there that don’t use some of the patents in our portfolio.
When Rockstar purchased the patents in 2011, Google expressed concern that it could be targeted. The search giant's fears have come true, and it's unclear how the company will respond. Google has patents of its own, of course, and it may retort with lawsuits against Rockstar's founders. The Rockstar suit could also make things more interesting for BlackBerry, which has a deep patent portfolio and is seeking a buyout.