Apple and Google call patents truce

Agree to dismiss all ongoing fights between Motorola and Apple, but may just leave the latter free to turn all its fire on Samsung

By Caroline Gabriel

Apple and Google have announced a patents truce, which will have little direct effect on the smartphone industry, but is being taken as a symbolic step on the way to ending the IPR wars of the past two years.

Various factors have raised hopes of an end to the hostilities which have distracted handset makers and wasted large sums of money on lawyers rather than R&D. Judges and shareholders have grown impatient of suits which seemed to be more about clipping rivals' wings than defending inventions; major players have increasingly been signing cross-licensing deals, as seen in Samsung's reconciliation with Ericsson; the jury in the latest round of Samsung/Apple litigation in San Jose called on Apple to go after Google directly if it really believes it has a case against Android.

The latest development suggests that Apple will not take that advice, and is feeling the pressure to be more conciliatory towards rivals using Google's Android platform. It has settled a long-standing patents quarrel with its erstwhile friend and the two firms will now cooperate in some areas of patent reform.

The lawsuits date back to October 2010 and were originally filed against Motorola Mobility, which became a subsidiary of Google but is now being sold on to Lenovo (minus many of the patents for which it was acquired). Apple and Google jointly informed a federal appeals court that the cases should be dismissed, though they have not yet agreed a cross-licensing deal, so there could be further disputes ahead - the dismissal notice still leaves the door open for future suits based on the same patents.

"Apple and Google have agreed to dismiss all the current lawsuits that exist directly between the two companies," they said in a joint statement. "Apple and Google have also agreed to work together in some areas of patent reform. The agreement does not include a cross-license."

The patents at issue still feature in some of Apple's actions against Samsung, so the big question now is whether the iDevice maker can come to a similar pact with its biggest handset rival.

Although the patents are quite minor, and there are many other Apple/Android lawsuits continuing, the pact does indicate a declining appetite for the courtroom on Apple's part, and a willingness to work on reform of IPR law and processes, issues which are exercising regulatory bodies in the US and Europe.

However, some analysts think Apple is merely clearing minor fights with less important competitors off its books in order to focus its energies and resources on the more important Samsung fight. "It's largely symbolic," Michael Risch, a law professor at Villanova University, told Bloomberg. "Motorola isn't as big of a competitor any more".

Apple may also be ensuring it does not have to take on Google directly. Both companies have steered clear of a patents head-to-head over Android, except where the search giant inherited cases with its Motorola purchase, even though Google is involved indirectly because it has backed Android partners such as Samsung and HTC with advice, lobbying power and funds - and Apple has been behind complaints to the European Union about Motorola and Google.

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