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UN locks Apple, Google, Microsoft in a room for patent peace summit

'You're meant to encourage innovation, not stifle it'

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Tech titans including Apple, Nokia, Google and Microsoft will today argue the toss at a UN confab on whether patent law is stifling innovation.

The International Telecommunications Union (ITU) arranged the get-together to assess the effectiveness of allowing companies to sort out the licensing of patents crucial to building industry-standard gear. Firms are expected to offer these essential designs on "reasonable and non-discriminatory" terms.

The meeting will also discuss whether existing patent law should be updated, whether standards essential patent violations should result in product bans, and what the basic rate for royalties should be.

It comes after the Great Patent War, fought worldwide by rival tech giants, spread from arguments over the appearance of products to patents that are the bedrock of modern communications systems, such as 3G mobile broadband. Motorola and Samsung, which own reams of intellectual property relating to standardised technology, have used their phone patents in legal action chiefly launched by Apple.

Regulators in Europe and the US have voiced their concern over the use of these patents as courtroom weapons. The EU has opened official probes into Samsung and Motorola, and the US Congress is considering outlawing product bans won using standards-essential patents.

"We are seeing an unwelcome trend in today’s marketplace to use standards-essential patents to block markets," ITU secretary general Dr Hamadoun Touré said in a canned statement. "There needs to be an urgent review of this situation: patents are meant to encourage innovation, not stifle it.

"Acknowledging patent holders and user requirements, as well as market needs, is a balancing act. This timely multi-stakeholder roundtable will help press for a resolution on some of the critical issues."

All participants in the meeting, held in Geneva, were invited to submit written opinions, and the firms have already voiced differing views over these patents.

Microsoft unsurprisingly backed the current system, which encourages fair licensing over outright bans on products. Earlier this year the software giant lost an infringement case in Germany over Motorola's patents on the H.264 standard - a video compression technology used in Xbox games consoles.

"We have offered our view that any patent holder that promises to make its standard essential patents available on reasonable and nondiscriminatory terms should do just that. That means that such patent holders should not seek to block shipments of competing products just because they implement an industry standard - a license on reasonable terms is always available," Microsoft said.

"That also means that such patent holders should not require other firms to license back their patents, except for patents that are essential to the same standard."

On the other hand, Nokia argued that bans should be available to holders of standards-essential patents (SEPs).

"While injunctions with SEPs should certainly not be available against a genuinely willing licensee, there are situations where injunctions against unwilling licensees are a necessary remedy for [intellectual property rights] holders, such as a total refusal to negotiate a licence, or refusal to pay compensation determined by a competent court," the company said.

Samsung, RIM, Intel, Sony, HP and Huawei are among the businesses on the attendance list as well as Apple, Google, Microsoft and Nokia. ®

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