Our present generation is most defined by the advent and rise of the smartphone, which brought technology from our desktops to our hands and further to our wrists. In a fray that saw technology companies like Apple grow to be world's most valuable companies, the fight for market dominance has been fought as much in the marketplace as in patent courts - starting with Nokia attacking Apple in a series of lawsuits in 2009 and 2010.
Nokia filed its first patent case against Apple, igniting the so called smartphone patent wars, on October 22, 2009 in the US District Court for Delaware. Nokia was visibly seething from the loss of its earlier prominence on the industry and as it became evident Nokia could not compete with the iPhone's rise, it looked over to its huge patent portfolio to take as big a bite from the apple as it could. In this first complaint, Nokia accused Apple of infringing on 10 patents covering essentials of the GSM, UMTS and WLAN standards. In its complaint, Nokia stated that it has not only committed billions of dollars into research and development (including helping formulate industry standards) but also has been committed to licensing its standard essential patents under Fair, Reasonable And Non Discriminatory (FRAND) terms. Nokia had declared at least some of the ten patents as being essential to the GSM, UMTS and WLAN standards - all of which were implemented in the iPhone - and was entitled to royalties from Apple, even if under FRAND terms. The questions whether the ten patents were in fact standard-essential and whether Nokia was genuinely seeking fair and reasonable royalties were hotly debated and never fully answered.
As was expected, Apple responded to the first case in equal measure shortly afterward with its own patents - filing a one-up case covering 13 patents on December 11, 2009. What followed then was a series of tit-for-tat cases between Nokia and Apple - in all covering over 60 patents across 6 district cases, 2 ITC complaints and at least 3 cases in Europe, running concurrently and none betraying any sense of who had the better of the other.
While Nokia and Apple battled it out in the court, however, sales continued to grow for the iPhone as well as for Android phone manufacturers such as Samsung, Motorola and HTC - and Nokia slipped further behind. Torn between its own Symbian OS and Microsoft's new Windows Phone OS, Nokia made one wrong decision after another - giving up market share to its rivals not only in the US and Europe but in the developing world as well.
Sensing rightly that marketplace competition from the new Android players was far greater threat than a patent war with Nokia, Apple shifted gears as well. Having got a taste for battle from Nokia, Apple started targeting the major Android OEMs (HTC, Motorola and Samsung) with its own patent lawsuits in late 2010 and 2011 while pursuing settlement negotiations with Nokia.
Nokia and Apple buried their disputes in June 2011 for an undisclosed (but presumably big) settlement including a sizable one-time payment to Nokia - and Apple could then focus on the larger fight with HTC, Motorola and the even larger fight with Samsung, the new dominant player across the globe. The fight between Apple and Samsung would rage on in multiple courts for the next 5 years - and continues even today after the recent Supreme Court ruling vacating the damages calculation by lower courts in favor of Apple - and setting new precedent for calculating damages in design infringement cases.
Check out our previous coverage on the Apple v. Samsung fight here.
Over the subsequent years, the smartphone patent wars drew swords from virtually every industry player - Apple, Microsoft, HTC, Motorola, Google, LG, ZTE, Ericsson, Qualcomm and Blackberry (RIM) individually as well as in cohorts like Rockstar Consortium and RPX Corporation which pumped billions of dollars in buying telecom and smartphone patents on behalf of these companies.
Nokia, while relatively absent from the fray after its settlement with Apple, had not been sitting idle. It sold its dwindling phone business rather richly to Microsoft in 2015 for $7.9 billion. The overpriced acquisition is seen by industry analysts as a $10 billion mistake by Microsoft but bought Microsoft a place in the smartphone roster.
Having lost its core competence, i.e. handsets, Nokia has no doubt been aching and preparing to get back into the fight. It seems to have taken two parallel approaches:
First, Nokia grew its patent portfolio by over a half in a merger with another telecom powerhouse Alcatel Lucent. While staying little more than a footnote in the smartphone marketplace, Alcatel Lucent is credited with a wide number of component technologies that make smartphones a reality - as well as a sizable number of standard essential patents.
Second, with its own patents, Nokia has allegedly been fighting a proxy war against Apple and Android manufacturers by transferring patent rights to multiple patent assertion entities (PAE) like Acacia Research and Conversant Property Management. These PAEs alone have sued Apple more than 12 times using former Nokia patents.
Being targeted by PAEs is nothing new for Apple - but in an anti-trust complaint dated December 20, 2016, Apple finally said enough was enough. Pulling no punches, Apple accused the PAEs of "conspiring with Nokia in a scheme to diffuse and abuse [standard essential patents] and, as the PAEs and Nokia fully intended, monetize those false promises by extracting exorbitant non-FRAND royalties in way Nokia could not".
Using PAEs for direct attacks against Apple was a smart, albeit sneaky, strategy for Nokia if indeed there was collusion. Since PAEs do not themselves sell any products, there would be little risk of a countersuit from Apple - as well as a general lack of commitment to FRAND licensing terms that spell lower royalties.
Regardless of whether it was indeed a thought-out strategy by Nokia, the anti-trust complaint was exactly the flag Nokia had been waiting for. Over the very next couple of days, after five years of sitting on the sidelines, Nokia fired new direct shots at Apple - at least 12 new cases across the globe, covering 40 patents ranging from H.264 video encoding to RF and power management technologies used in Apple products.
Regional Court, Dusseldorf, Germany - 8 patents
Regional Court, Mannheim, Germany - 4 patents
Regional Court, Munich, Germany - 2 patents
Market Court, Helsinki, Finland - 3 patents
High Court, London, UK - 3 patents
Court of Turin, Italy - 4 patents
Patent and Market Court, Stockholm, Sweden - 3 patents
Commercial Courts, Barcelona, Spain - 1 patent
District Court, The Hague, Netherlands - 3 patents
High Court, Paris, France - 1 patent
High Court, Hong Kong - 1 patent
Tokyo District Court, Japan - 2 patents
International Trade Commission, US - 8 patents
US District Court for Eastern District of Texas - 18 patents
The timing and range of the cases shows that Nokia was all but ready with a finger on the trigger to file the complaints that undoubtedly required months of due diligence and research. For at least some of these patents-in-suit, Nokia alleges that it has been trying to negotiate FRAND royalties with Apple - which Apple believes to be unreasonable and excessive.
Apple has so far not filed a countersuit against Nokia, but has pulled all Withings (owned by Nokia) products from its stores. A fresh slew of tit-for-tat cases are no doubt on the way as well, as these things usually go. It seems unlikely that all of these different cases will reach trial and a settlement would be the most likely the endgame for both companies no matter how prolonged the battle gets.
But until the two reach that elusive deal - we must remember that the human civilization is and always has been in a constant state of war with only intermittent periods of peace. This latest spat between Nokia and Apple proves that the consumer electronics industry is no exception.