The expiry of patent licences from Ericsson means that Apple has been selling phones it should not have been, according to Ericsson, and the Swedish commtech firm has now asked Apple to pay up or stop doing it. Ericsson has filed suits in Germany, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands against Apple's products.
The whole area of IP licensing is difficult and murky, and these are waters Apple has had its fair share in muddying. No area is more complex than FRAND – terms that are supposed to be fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory.
The idea being that if a company has invented something it should get paid for it, but not be able to exercise patents on something so fundamental to an industry that it damages the competitive environment.
Ericsson says that the dispute refers to “2G and 4G/LTE standards, as well as other technology that is not standardized, but is related to, for instance, the design of semiconductor components and non-cellular wireless communications."
This presumably makes a fairly clean sweep of all Apple's major products including the Watch. Ericsson did confirm to the Reg today that in the company's view this means the vast majority of iThingies have a little bit of Ericsson in them. And while Ericsson isn’t yet seeking an injunction the company does say that it’s a weapon which could be brought to bear. A spokesperson told El Reg:
“An injunction is one possible method, [but] we cannot speculate on how Apple will proceed”.
We were also told:
“For more than two years Ericsson has been trying to reach an agreement with Apple on a global license for Ericsson's patents."
Ericsson spokespersons were not prepared to say if the new terms Ericsson is seeking are different to the previous terms or what the terms might be.
Kasim Alfalahi, Chief Intellectual Property Officer at Ericsson, says:
"Apple continues to profit from Ericsson's technology without having a valid license in place. Our technology is used in many features and functionality of today's communication devices. We are confident the courts in Germany, the UK and the Netherlands will be able to help us resolve this matter in a fair manner."
For many years there was a kind of mutually assured destruction understanding between Ericsson, Motorola and Nokia who didn’t pursue each other for IP infringement fearing tit-for-tat reprisals. The changing of the world order, with many of the new players who ironically have the weaker patent portfolios, seeking to assert rights has seen a lot more litigation.
While the prospect of Apple having to take phones off the shelves might have Samsung, Sony and HTC licking their lips, it’s not something which would benefit Ericsson - which hasn’t made handsets for a very long time. Apple will most probably pay lawyers lots of money and then settle. ®