Patent Conflicts

by Christopher Faille

Since a patent is by definition an exclusive right to the use of a particular invention, the term "patent conflicts" can cover any disputes arising from such rights or from disputed claims to such rights. In contemporary discussions, "patent conflicts" most often refers to situations in which two or more firms within a single technological industry make overlapping and thus conflicting patent claims.

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Kodak v. World

Kodak, the iconic chemicals and photography company, spent the final years before its bankruptcy filing engaged in desperate patent conflicts, hoping to turn around its failing commercial fortunes with large awards or settlements. It charged, for example, that it had an exclusive right to the use of an image-preview function in smart phones. An administrative law judge working for the U.S. International Trade Commission found in January 2011 that both Apple and Research in Motion had violated Kodak's rights in this area. The ITC reversed this decision in part and remanded it (that is, returned it to the judge for further consideration) in June. Those proceedings in effect "ran out the clock" on Kodak.

Apple v. Microsoft

In 1997, as Steve Jobs was regaining control of Apple after a period of exile, he proposed a deal that would end Apple's long intellectual-property war with Microsoft. He agreed to waive all claims in return for a needed infusion of Microsoft's cash and Bill Gates's assurance that Microsoft's engineers would continue to develop software for the Macintosh. The subsequent success of both corporations has seemed to at least some observers to justify the conclusion that it is often best to settle patent conflicts peacefully, out of court, and focus on operations rather than litigation.

Apple v. Android/Google

Yet Apple has hardly adopted non-litigation as a general rule. It is involved in a global struggle against Google, the creator of Android software, and several companies who manufacture smart phones and tablets that use Android software. Apple contends that they are all ripoffs of its iPad and iPhone products: sometimes "slavish" copies. Typically, when it brings a lawsuit against any of these parties, the defendant brings a countersuit, and they end up in protracted, expensive battles, court by court and country by country. One of the Android-employing companies involved is the South Korean firm Samsung Electronics Co., with reference to its Galaxy line of products.

AKZO v. Du Pont

Patent conflicts are not exclusive to the digital world. AKZO and DuPont both invented similar high-strength and fire resistant fibers during the 1970s, calling them Twaron and Kevlar respectively. They litigated patent rights through the 1980s inconclusively. Both products continue to sell on the world markets in the 21st century.