As a result, some patents are so broad that they allow patent holders to claim sweeping ownership of seemingly unrelated products built by others. Often, companies are sued for violating patents they never knew existed or never dreamed might apply to their creations, at a cost shouldered by consumers in the form of higher prices and fewer choices.
“There’s a real chaos,” said Richard Posner, a federal appellate judge who has helped shape patent law, in an interview. “The standards for granting patents are too loose.”
Almost every major technology company is involved in ongoing patent battles, but the most significant player is Apple, industry executives say, because of its influence and the size of its claims: In August in California, the company won a US$1 billion patent-infringement judgement against Samsung. Former Apple employees say senior executives made a deliberate decision over the last decade, after Apple was a victim of patent attacks, to use patents as leverage against competitors to the iPhone, the company’s biggest source of profits.
Apple has filed multiple suits against three companies — HTC, Samsung and Motorola Mobility, now part of Google — that today are responsible for more than half of all smartphone sales in the US. If Apple’s claims — which include ownership of minor elements like rounded square icons and of more fundamental smartphone technologies — prevail, it will most likely force competitors to overhaul how they design phones, industry experts say.
HTC, Samsung, Motorola and others have filed numerous suits of their own, also trying to claim ownership of market-changing technologies.
The evolution of Apple into one of the industry’s patent warriors gained momentum, like many things within the company, with a terse order from its chief executive, Steve Jobs.
It was 2006 and Apple was preparing to unveil the first iPhone. Life inside company headquarters, former executives said, had become a frenzy of programming sessions and meetings between engineers and executives. And, increasingly, patent lawyers.
Just months earlier, Apple reluctantly agreed to pay US$100 million to Creative Technology, a Singapore-based company. Five years before, Creative applied for a broad software patent for a “portable music playback device” that bore minor similarities to the iPod, an Apple product that had gone on sale the same year. Once the patent was granted to Creative, it became a license to sue.
Apple settled three months after Creative went to court.
“Creative is very fortunate to have been granted this early patent,” Jobs said in a statement announcing the settlement in 2006.
Privately, Jobs gathered his senior managers. While Apple had long been adept at filing patents, when it came to the new iPhone, “we’re going to patent it all,” he declared, according to a former executive who, like other former employees, requested anonymity because of confidentiality agreements.
“His attitude was that if someone at Apple can dream it up, then we should apply for a patent, because even if we never build it, it’s a defensive tool,” said Nancy Heinen, Apple’s general counsel until 2006.