Why tech patents have become an arms race

It is only three months into 2010 and already we are surrounded by patent infringement cases. But why has the number of suits shot up in recent times?

It initially lost the case in August 2009 with a Texas District Court ordering it to not only pay $240 million in fines and $50 million in backdated daily damages, but also to remove the patent infringing feature in Word 2007 within 60 days.

Microsoft tried to launch an appeal in December but this was rejected. It didn't stop the company from trying again in January, but yet again the appeals court has upheld the first decision.

Despite being told three times now that it "wilfully" infringed the patents, it is likely to appeal again and can even go all the way up to the Supreme Court if it decides to.

This week has seen it lose another case with the VirnetX Holding Corporation. In this suit, Microsoft was accused, and found guilty, of infringing two patents one for a virtual private network patent and the other for a secure domain name service and ordered to pay a total of $106 million.

It is expected that Microsoft will try and appeal against the ruling, so we could see a repeat of the i4i case all over again.

Now for the internet giants

It is not just the software and mobile companies under pressure from patent infringement cases, as even the big internet players are getting in on the act.

A relatively small company by the name of Wireless Ink has taken on giants Google and Facebook, suing them for alleged patent infringement of its mobile social networking technology.

To give the company its dues, its social network called Winksite currently has around 75,000 users, so it's not tiny, but it is taking on the two most visited sites on the internet.

It is not just the little guys going after the internet leaders though. Xerox recently launched a patent infringement case against Google, Google-owned YouTube and Yahoo for allegedly infringing on its search and integration technology.

In the eyes of the law

The rise in these cases seems to have come about over the past 10 years, according to a technology law expert.

Struan Robertson, a technology lawyer for international law firm Pinsent Masons, couldn't put his finger on why this was, but he believes the US patent system has had a huge role to play.

"The root of the problem is that America gives out patents like it's a rubber stamping exercise. I mean they give these things away like toffee and it is crazy," he said in an interview with IT PRO.

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