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Broadcom, Bluetooth and that patent lawsuit

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Analysis What do these companies have in common: Matsushita and its Panasonic unit, Samsung, and Nokia? Two answers: they are all companies named in a patent lawsuit over Bluetooth. And (say wireless engineers) they are also companies where Broadcom would very much like to sell more Bluetooth technology.

That leaves us with a few mysteries.

The first mystery about the Bluetooth lawsuit between patent owner Washington Research Foundation and the above-named companies - who happen to be customers of Cambridge Silicon Radio - is this: if WRF thinks CSR is breaking its patents, why is it not suing CSR?

And the second mystery: why on earth did Broadcom buy into WRF's licence, if CSR thinks it is "without merit"? Is Broadcom falling behind in the technology development world? Or is CSR behaving unethically?

I've spoken to technology companies in the past, who have been approached by WRF over patent issues; and as you might expect, not all of them have spoken in praise of the group.

"It's likely they saw some groups of companies, particularly Japanese-owned technology companies, as something of a soft touch," remarked one inventor who has had a brush or two with WRF. "They'd hit the parent company with a host of patent infringement claims, and some of them would be completely unrelated to anything we could see in our portfolio."

Another developer said that "They appeared to think we'd just roll over and sign patent agreements, rather than face their lawyers in court. We saw it as 'money with menaces' really, rather than a serious attempt to show infringement."

It's not a big surprise that companies suspected of infringing patents held by WRF might make unflattering comments about them, but equally, there are plenty of examples of American IP owners which are, fundamentally, legal firms; and plenty of examples of such corporations taking out lawsuits against other IP owners which were settled out of court, rather than endure the losses inherent in fighting. The latest dispute between RIM and STP back in April was a good example.

What is a big surprise, is the sight of Broadcom signing a deal with an IP company. It has apparently surprised not only CSR, but the Bluetooth Special Interest Group (SIG). And (as we show below) surprising the SIG on this matter is quite a trick. It thought it had all bases covered, and spent a lot of time and effort to make sure of it. How could it miss a basic patent, crucial to the Bluetooth technology?

What, exactly, are the technology issues in question? Excellent question! - nobody seems willing to answer it.

"To my best understanding," offered one Bluetooth SIG member, "if you start trying to find which patents are being named, you don't get details: but from conversations, I'd say it seems they are the ones about how you tune the oscillators and clever digital IF stuff."

This is not clever stuff that gets written down. "It's about implementations within certain people's chips. Most of that implementation information is kept very secret by the chip manufacturers."

In this instance, rather than fight, Broadcom took out a licence. The obvious implication is either 1) that Broadcom had not worked out this intermediate frequency implementation before the 1995 period when Ed Suominen, a student who had been studying radio design at the University of Washington received his bachelor's degree in electrical engineering or 2) that Broadcom didn't feel it could defend its original work without exposing it to rivals.

But there's a third option: that Broadcom decided that a threat of a lawsuit might frighten CSR customers.

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