Friday, January 05, 2007

Bluetooth Technology: Patent Suit [US]

US Research Body Says Mobile Phone Makers Using Bluetooth Technology Without Paying Royalties

A US research institute has sued Nokia, Samsung Electronics and Matsushita-owned Panasonic for violating a patent for Bluetooth technology, potentially putting the free wireless standard at risk. The Washington Research Foundation, which markets technology from the University of Washington, is seeking damages from the three mobile-phone makers for using a radio frequency receiver technology without paying royalties, according to court papers obtained by Reuters on Wednesday.

A University of Washington scientist Edwin Suominen was awarded a patent in 1999 for “simplified high frequency broadband tuner and tuning method”. Bluetooth was invented as a wire replacement by Ericsson engineer Jaap Haartsen in the mid 1990s and developed by engineers at Ericsson and four other companies which made it available at no cost through the Bluetooth Special Interest Group (SIG). Haartsen told Reuters that others had previously tried unsuccessfully to claim part of the Bluetooth technology. “We’ll have to see how this one pans out,” he said before looking at the claim in detail.

Nokia declined to comment. “We are currently studying the claims,” said spokeswoman Eija-Riitta Huovinen. Samsung and Panasonic were not immediately available to comment.

Bluetooth was given away by Ericsson and others to create a global wireless standard to connect mobile phones, laptops, headsets and other electronic gadgets wirelessly. Since the first standard was set in 1998 it has become hugely popular and is now put in hundreds of millions of devices every year. “As they say, ‘Where there is a hit, there is a writ’,” said analyst Neil Mawston at market research group Strategy Analytics.

The claim appears to restrict itself to Bluetooth devices sold or used in the United States, which means any ruling will impact around 15 to 20% of total global Bluetooth mobile phone and headset sales in the near-term, Mawston said.

“The mobile Bluetooth market in the US is relatively immature and it is not yet as important to vendors as, say, western Europe with 30 to 40% of total,” he said.

But Ben Wood, a mobile telecoms consultant at CCS Insight, said the implications for the standard could be more serious if the foundation’s claim is successful. “A standard which everyone assumes to be royalty free is now at risk of becoming a chargeable element inside mobile phones and other devices,” he said.

Although the complaint, filed in the United States western district court of Washington state at Seattle, was filed against the three companies, it targets products containing Bluetooth chips from British chip maker CSR, which has a world market share of more than 50%. A spokesman for CSR, which was not sued by the research group as it does not sell the chips directly in the United States, said the firm was looking closely at the legal documents and declined to comment further.

Shares in the Cambridge-based firm lost as much as 6.6% before clawing back some of the early losses. They were down 3.6% at 635 pence Wednesday, underperforming a 0.2% dip in the European technology index. Nokia shares were off 0.7%.

The suit set apart CSR rival USbased Broadcom, which has acquired a licence to use the radio technology, the Washington Research Foundation said. The foundation said it had informed the three mobile phone makers about Broadcom’s licence, and that they could have bought their chips from Broadcom and avoided a legal battle. “The document is positive news for Broadcom, but negative for CSR. These two are the main global players in the Bluetooth chip market,” Mawston said.

Bluetooth marketing director Anders Edlund said he could not yet comment on the validity of the court case. — Reuters

Source : Economic Times, January 4, 2007

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