Google has stepped into the widening global legal battle between Apple and smartphone makers using the internet company’s Android mobile operating system, throwing its weight behind HTC as it fights charges of intellectual property infringement.
Google last week transferred nine of its patents to HTC, and on Wednesday the Taiwanese smartphone maker used some of its newly acquired intellectual property to launch fresh countersuits against Apple in two U.S courts. HTC has already lost an initial court ruling over patent infringement to Apple.
Intellectual property has become a key battleground in the fast-growing smartphone industry, with Apple and Microsoft challenging Android phonemakers such as HTC and Samsung in courts in the US, Europe and Japan.
Google’s move demonstrates how the internet giant is becoming more active in throwing its weight behind other companies within the Android ecosystem.
Google has been criticized for not having enough patents to come to the aid of its manufacturing partners but responded last month by agreeing to pay $12.5-billion for Motorola Mobility, a move that gave it control over Motorola’s more than 17,000 patents.
Larry Page, Google chief executive, said at the time that a stronger Google patent portfolio would enable the company “to better protect Android from anticompetitive threats from Microsoft, Apple and other companies”.
Of the nine patents transferred to HTC, none was part of the Motorola acquisition, which is expected to close early next year. Two originated from Palm, three from Openwave Systems, and four from Motorola, according to data from the US Patent and Trademark Office. Google acquired all nine within the past year.
HTC confirmed it had expanded its legal actions against Apple but did not comment on the acquisition of patents from Google. Grace Lei, general counsel, said that “HTC will continue to protect its patented inventions against infringement from Apple until such infringement stops”.
Pierre Ferragu, analyst at Bernstein, said some of the patents Google transferred to HTC were very similar to Apple patents that the US International Trade Commission earlier ruled HTC had infringed upon.
This suggests Google is helping to provide legal ammunition to HTC to fight back against Apple, and that there is now a balance of power between the various smartphone camps in terms of intellectual property rights.
“With ‘Googorola’ stepping in to support the Android ecosystem, the chances that Apple forces major workarounds or gets meaningful royalty payments become very unlikely,” he said.
The transfer of patents to HTC also opens the possibility of Google helping other Android phonemakers facing litigation, most notably Samsung, which is expecting a ruling on Friday from a German court on whether the design of its tablet PCs was stolen from Apple’s iPad. Samsung faces a ban in Germany for its tablets if it loses.
CK Cheng, analyst at CLSA, said Google would probably offer similar patent protection to other Android phonemakers in the future, especially after the Motorola deal closes.
“But there is very little information out there now and it is unclear whether or not Google would charge phonemakers for such protection,” he said.