Tech Giants Ask E.U. for 'Patent Troll' Protection ; Plans for Unified Courts Raise Industry Fears of More Infringement Suits

Article excerpt

After spending hundreds of millions of dollars in the United States to defend against patent-infringement lawsuits, the companies worry that Europe could soon become a battleground for similar court battles.

Google, Apple, Microsoft and other tech giants are taking the fight against "patent trolls" to Europe.

The companies have all spent years and hundreds of millions of dollars in the United States to defend against patent-infringement lawsuits by companies that make a business of buying technology patents primarily for the purpose of suing software companies and makers of smartphones and other products. Now they worry that Europe could soon become a broad battleground for similar court battles.

In a letter to be sent to European officials on Thursday, the three American companies and a number of others outline their concerns about a coming change that will give most of Europe a unified patent court system for the first time. So far, the industry has generally supported this pan-European effort as a way to better protect intellectual property, compared with the current thicket of country-by-country rules.

But in looking at the details of the new approach, set tentatively to begin in 2015, the companies fear that the new system could be vulnerable to so-called "patent assertion entities," less politely known as patent trolls, that make a business of filing patent-infringement suits. Such companies say they play a valuable role in protecting innovators, but many corporations see the suits as frivolous and damaging. In the United States, the Federal Trade Commission has a patent-troll investigation under way.

Among the concerns of the companies that sent the letter, executives said in interviews, is that court-shopping by patent trolls in some smaller European countries could turn parts of the Continent into the equivalent of the Eastern District of Texas, a federal court jurisdiction that has become a U.S. capital of patent litigation known for sympathetic juries and speedily moving cases.

In one notable case there, in 2010, a jury awarded an obscure company more than $600 million in a suit against Apple relating to its operating systems, although it was eventually overturned by the trial judge, and by the U.S. Supreme Court this year. A host of companies also had to fend off a suit in East Texas filed by a company that claimed to have invented the "interactive Web."

"Unprincipled plaintiffs would be able to extract substantial royalties" through settlements or verdicts "from European and other companies based on low-quality and potentially invalid patents," the letter said.

The letter, signed by 14 corporations, including BlackBerry, Cisco Systems, Hewlett-Packard, Intel, Samsung and Yahoo, as well as some big European players, was provided to The New York Times by the companies.

Top officials drafting the rules of the new court system said they were listening to the industry's concerns -- which is perhaps no surprise, since several people involved in the drafting process work for law practices or lobbying firms that count such companies as clients.

But some officials also suggested that the concerns were overblown.

"I don't see it as a major problem at all," said Kevin Mooney, a British patent lawyer who is the chairman of a drafting committee that is advising a preparatory panel set up to oversee the creation of the new court system. "We have one set of procedures for all these courts," he said. "It would be nonsense if we allowed one court, Romania say, to become the Eastern District of Texas."

European signatories of the letter included Deutsche Telekom, Deutsche Post, Adidas, Telecom Italia and Bull SAS, a French technology company, and also the European Semiconductor Industry Association and the Syndicat de l'Industrie des Technologies de l'Information.

Some companies contend that the new European system is being too heavily influenced by the German model. …