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Broadcom, Bluetooth and that patent lawsuit

Who do you think you are fooling?

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Few of the engineers I've spoken to believe that either Broadcom, or CSR, had not done work covering those technologies, by the mid-90s. The consensus is that "prior art" exists which would invalidate Suominen's patent - if published. "It's clever stuff, but the basic IP is old, and only the details would be patentable; and everybody has their own way of doing that," said one Bluetooth designer who once worked with Cambridge Consultants in the 90s.

If this is right, there's an interesting sub-question, because nobody can see how WRF might know anything about how the CSR chip handles this implementation stuff. And indeed, nobody I spoke to believes they do. "They're throwing a lawsuit at CSR, in the hope they'll be a soft touch," was what most said.

But of course, WRF isn't suing CSR. It's picking on people who sell Bluetooth-based phones and headsets, who happen to be CSR's customers. Why, exactly?

Local paper, Seattle Times cited John Reagh, WRF's manager of business development and legal affairs: Instead of suing CSR, he said the organisation decided to act against the handset makers because the chipset manufacturer may not know which chips are headed to the United States, where the patent is enforceable, but the device-maker would.

The US laws of patent are weird enough that the argument makes "sense" in that strange context. But it's hard to avoid the obvious implication: that WRF does not think the patent would stand up anywhere else. And I have to say that it's an argument few people in the UK believe.

What engineers do believe, is rather startling. I don't have any evidence that their opinions are based on any data of any sort, but I can tell you what they're saying to each other in Cambridge:

"It's far more likely that when they approached Broadcom, someone smart inside Broadcom saw an opportunity to scare those big buyers of CSR equipment by claiming a patent advantage," said an engineer. "If I were inside Broadcom right now, trying to get a foot inside the Bluetooth door with those people, the most effective threat I could think of would be 'Buy from us, or you will have your US sales blocked by the Courts while the lawsuit drags on...' and that could be very, very profitable."

Nobody at the Bluetooth SIG is saying anything like that, and nobody at CSR is saying anything other than "the suit is without merit" and "we will defend it robustly" and so on; but it's interesting to discover what the "wireless grass roots" feeling on this is, however accurate or inaccurate it might be.

Much of this grass roots opinion may be pure prejudice, of course. There's a lot of hostility towards patent vampires, especially after the Blackberry case, and even a genuine technology developer like Qualcomm, which actually spent money on R&D to create many of its patents, is experiencing huge hostility from other electronics companies because of its approach to intellectual property.

The Bluetooth SIG approach was to get all the relevant patents needed, and pull all the people who owned them into a sort of commonwealth. Everybody who provided patents could share everybody else's patents - and it's worked rather well, so far.

This approach to intellectual property isn't open to a simple IP owner like Washington Research. Rights to use Bluetooth IP for no charge are only of value for those who are in a position to exploit them technically. If I need to build a headset, then free IP is worth diamonds. If I need to charge royalties on headset patents, however, the last thing I need is free IP.

Washington doesn't generate IP itself. "Our mission is to capture and enhance the value of intellectual property arising from Washington State research institutions to support research and scholarship," it admits frankly. It does incubation; it funds startups using R&D discoveries made in Washington, and it pours revenues back into Washington academic institutions.

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