Meet The Patent Thicket: Who's Suing Who For Smartphone Patents

from the now,-with-more-troll dept

A few folks this week sent over a story in the Guardian by Josh Halliday and Charles Arthur with a graphic purporting to show who was suing who in the smartphone space, following the news that Microsoft had sued Motorola. You can see that graphic here:
Meanwhile, someone in our comments had pointed to a very similar graphic.

The problem is that both of these graphics are wrong. The Guardian one admits that it was built off of the NY Times post from back in March that that showed a similar graphic, which we wrote about at the time. Here's that graphic:
However, Joe Mullin quickly pointed out that the graphic was wrong and included a bunch of lawsuits that never happened. NY Times blogger Nick Bilton posted a correction to his story way back in March... so I'm unclear on why the two Guardian reporters were still using that as the basis of their own drawing.

Either way, with Motorola suing Apple for patent infringement, the already wrong graphic was now also out of date. So, I figured why not create my own, correcting the original errors and adding in the new information.

I ended up spending many hours on it, because once I started, I realized that to really show the state of the patent thicket, I couldn't just include the big name companies that were suing each other, because that's only a part of the story. What about all of the non-practicing entities (so-called "patent trolls"), who were suing lots of these companies for infringement as well? Doesn't that matter in understanding the thicket? Of course, there are lots of them, so I focused on the higher profile NPE lawsuits -- the ones involving multiple defendants -- and added them to the chart too (in green). And then, I added in a few other companies who actually make stuff but have been suing as well. Once you start, it's difficult to know where to stop. There are so many companies involved in so many lawsuits, some you just have to leave out. However, I believe the image below gives you at least some sort of picture of the lawsuit situation concerning smartphones. Some of these lawsuits have settled, but many are still ongoing.
Now, here's the crazy part: this is just lawsuits. I thought about showing licensing deals in this chart as well, but that would have killed my whole weekend (in fact, just as I was finishing up this post, I saw that Microsoft has just licensed 74 smartphone patents from Acacia). And then I thought about including companies like Intellectual Ventures which apparently are sitting on a bunch of other smartphone patents but haven't yet sued over them. However, I'd already wasted hours that could have been spent doing other, less brain-damaging work, and decided to leave it like this and move on.

Anyway, I'd say this does a damn good job demonstrating the concept of a patent thicket. It also explains how such thickets are hindering innovation. Anyone who wants to get into the smartphone business knows that they're facing lawsuits from a large number of the companies listed on the graphic.

Update: Someone just pointed out that Ars Technica apparently made their own graphic, which is really pretty.... but also relies on the same bad data that the NY Times used and corrected months ago.

Update 2: Apparently everyone had the same idea. The folks at Information is Beautiful made another version of the same chart... again including the incorrect information from the NY Times (though, at least they admit those lawsuits are about LCD price fixing, not patents).

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  1. identicon
    staff-infection, 9 Oct 2010 @ 11:09pm

    Re: modern patents

    "Wonder why science has progressed so much more in the last 200 years than in the previous 5000? Patents. "

    First of all, you're either a shyster or an ignoramus. You make many erroneous statements staff and this is just the latest display of ignorance or flat out lies, about patents.

    1. Patents have been around since (at least) 500BC. The formal 20+ year patents are 560+ years old (not 200) and idea patents (the culprit) didn't really get going until dot com insanity at the turn of the century. So, given over 360 years of the 20+ year patents, the only thing they did, was to give ownership of industry to those who had the means to pursue patents. The system became unbearable with entrenched patent hoarders dictating the pace of innovation (Which is where we find our selves yet again). You can see in this graph, that the system went off the rails in 1998, the year State Street opened the door for idea patents. . In short, patents were then and are now, a king's sport.

    2. There are no honest economic historians who would back you up on the claim, BTW. If you had any knowledge of the historical roll that patents played in the development of the industrial backbone (which actually ushered in the tipping point for advancement), you would be ashamed of your comment. So I'm just going to presume ignorance on that one.

    3. The roll of patents up to the 1970's was somewhat justified, though at that time, they're stated requirements were vastly harder to satisfy than they are today. Process patents essentially destroyed what value the patent system had. If you actually loved the patent system, you would support a ban on imagination monopolies. The presumed validity of patents is gone now and that makes more work and waste for everyone. Except you and others that exploit the broken system. It's managed to make many of you very wealthy.

    4. You show me a list of patent wins for independent inventors, and I'll build you a 10 to 1 ratio of inventors that got smacked down by the hand of patents. You can't deny that the independent inventor gets hosed far more often than he gets paid, can you? because that's just not supported by the statistics, staff.

    5. and, I didn't even want to respond to this one, because it's so ridiculous, but.. here it goes: "Without patents there would be no small companies developing technologies pushing large entrenched firms.".

    So what would the small companies be doing? How would they compete? Are you suggesting that there would be no small companies if the USPTO were shuttered tomorrow? That's funny, because nearly all of the patents that drag the system into the state that it's in today, wouldn't have existed until the dot com bubble really started inflating, and the USPTO was suddenly granting patents for "a process where in a user ".

    So, yeah...

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