For the past few years, mobile phone manufacturers have continued to fight patent battles across the globe, many of which involve Apple’s iPhone patents. Recently, Google General Counsel Kent Walker has written a letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee arguing that many of Apple’s patents should be considered de facto standards due to their widespread use. Much like standards essential patents, Google believes that Apple’s technological innovations are commercially essential.
Standards Essential Patents are those patents that have been adopted as standard for an industry. Standards Essential Patent holders are obligated to license the use of their patent under fair and reasonable non-discriminatory terms. Google believes that many of Apple’s patents, like multi-touch screen technology and the “slide to unlock” feature, have been adopted as standard features by the smartphone industry as a whole. Since these features have become so common, Google believes Apple’s patents are commercially essential and should be treated like Standards Essential Patents in the interests of fairness. Google also argues that failing to standardize Apple’s patents would hurt consumer welfare.
Not surprisingly, Apple’s CEO Tim Cook disagrees. Cook dismissed Google’s argument as an attempt to piggy-back on Apple’s industry-leading innovation and said Apple would not be “developer for the world.” Apple also argued that allowing a widespread adoption of their patented technology would disincentivize innovation. Other critics have accused Google of basically saying they cannot compete with Apple without infringing or licensing their patents.
As it currently stands, Apple’s patents can still be licensed by companies like Google, but they can choose exactly who can use it. If their patents were considered industry standard like Google requests, Apple would be required to license their technology to any competitor under fair and reasonable non-discriminatory terms. While they would still receive payment and profit off their patent, such an arrangement could hurt Apple’s ability to profit off their innovation after spending billions on development. Apple is currently estimated to be involved in 60% of mobile patent lawsuits according to Kanzatec IP Group. Losing control over who can license their patents would greatly impact Apple’s ability to navigate their current mass of litigation.
Apple’s lawyer, Bruce Sewell, wrote a refutation to the Senate committee. He argues that the popularity of Apple’s technology does not transform it into a standard in the eyes of the law. Apple should not be forced to license their patents to competitors just because they built the best mousetrap. Apple also pointed out that many of the iPhone’s signature features are not standard for telephones. Apple has spent billions developing the iPhone, and it includes features, like video games and camera software, that are nothing like a standard phone. In addition, Apple pointed out that the iPhone’s aesthetic design was a result of extensive development and is completely unrelated to industry standards for mobile phone technology. According to Apple, the iPhone is markedly different from a standard mobile phone.