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Broadcom, Bluetooth and that patent lawsuit

Who do you think you are fooling?

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But it's not seen, in the UK at least, in the same light as something like the St John's Innovation Centre in Cambridge. Here's a brief summary of how British technology startups feel about WRF: "I think of WRF as a patent vampire because they're one of many such institutions in the US - a 'research foundation' which seems to own a lot of intellectual property 'on behalf of' other people - patents which were originally owned by companies that were going bust, or by undergraduates who didn't know how to exploit them."

The speaker is a UK entrepreneur. He claims to have been approached by WRF on many occasions, while working for, or establishing, startup technology companies in Europe and in Japan. His view is that often, they don't even suspect their targets of breaching patents; they simply see it as a commercially viable operation to suggest a deal. "They have some IP in a related field. It would take either a lot of expensive investigation by highly qualified technical people, or a lawsuit, to establish whether or not the IP is being used by the company they are approaching."

So, he thinks, they simply start the lawsuit as a win-win tactic. If the technology is close enough to make the lawsuit expensive, WSF can afford it, and the startup (probably) can't. If the startup defends its claim, it has to fund the disclosure of the evidence that would otherwise cost WSF a fortune in technical fees.

All this is (mostly) speculation and "what people are saying", rather than hard fact, of course. We still don't actually know what patents are being disputed here, so when the Cambridge Mafia says "It's all stuff that doesn't look to be as old as the work which CSR bases its Bluetooth chips on," that's quite possibly guesswork.

What we do know is that the Bluetooth SIG really went a long way down the route of addressing the IP question, and believed it had either established ownership, or done deals with the owners, of all relevant patents.

To quote Al Sacco at CIO, the legal action comes as a surprise to the Bluetooth Special Interest Group (SIG). Sacco's blog records: "The more than 6,000 companies that belong to the Bluetooth SIG agree to license their relevant patents to other members without cost," and he quotes Anders Edlund, marketing director for the Bluetooth SIG. "It seems to have worked so far, so this [lawsuit] was kind of a surprise," he said.

The WRF claims that at least one of its patents related to radio frequency receivers is used in the Bluetooth standard. Sacco observes, very neutrally and without trying to draw inferences: "That patent was filed in August 2003 and granted Oct. 3, 2006. The first version of the Bluetooth specification was approved in 1998, and several updates have passed since."

Personally, I find it very easy to draw inferences. I think this sounds very much like another abuse of the appalling American patent system.

Only in America could you get a patent in 2006, based on a 2003 application, for work which has been in widespread use for the best part of a decade - and possibly, longer. I really look forward to hearing Broadcom's response to my queries about what patents it paid for in this case, and what made it feel that it could not show "prior art" in basic wireless technology.

And I have to add to my friends inside Broadcom: I recommend maximum disclosure! If you don't defend yourselves from the suspicion that is widespread in Cambridge - that you only signed the patent deal to get a foot in the door at Panasonic, Nokia and Samsung - then I think you're making a serious error of judgement. My advice: be as open as you can about what you're doing, because unless you are, you can expect suspicion to grow.

Here are the questions I sent to Broadcom corporate relations:

  1. When did Broadcom sign the agreement to license WRF-owned Bluetooth patents?
  2. Specifically, what patents are they (references?) and what do they cover?
  3. Why, when faced with allegations that the Bluetooth SIG had failed to cover these IP matters, did Broadcom not inform the SIG?
  4. Can someone give me an easily understandable explanation of how Broadcom, which has been doing wireless for a lot longer than the time-period covered by WRF's patent, failed to realize that it was using patentable technology? Or how it failed to claim 'prior art' when faced with the patent claim?
  5. Are you aware that the engineering community in the UK is suspecting Broadcom of acquiescing in the WRF patent because it provides a trade advantage when bidding for Nokia, Samsung and Panasonic contracts? Can you offer a comment that would dispel this suspicion?

No reply, as yet. No doubt, someone in Corporate PR is working on these tricky questions as we speak. I'm not holding my breath.

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