Apple Pays for Its Patent Infringement, But Important Legal Cases Continue

“If the ITC and other judges follow the basic rules of procedure and the legal requirements of the patent laws, as well as basic rules of evidence, then they will easily conclude that infringers of Qualcomm’s patented innovation should be held responsible for stealing the fruits of its inventive labors.” an age with instantaneous commentary on social media, the wheels of justice in courts seem to move at a glacial pace, especially in patent infringement lawsuits in the fast-paced smartphone industry. Yet, courts have been methodically receiving and meticulously reviewing the evidence in Qualcomm’s lawsuits against Apple Computer for infringing its patents. And, like the tortoise who eventually wins over the speedy hare, the judgments are just now coming out against Apple.

This past December, a Chinese court issued a preliminary injunction against Apple selling iPhones that infringed Qualcomm’s patents. A week later, A German court issued an injunction against Apple selling iPhones in that country that infringed Qualcomm’s patents. Last week, a jury in the United States found Apple liable for infringing Qualcomm’s patents and awarded Qualcomm $31 million in damages.

Not the Last Word

As important as these court rulings are, the fight is not over yet. Qualcomm is continuing its efforts to obtain legal protection for its patent rights at the International Trade Commission (ITC). Last fall, an ITC judge also found Apple had infringed Qualcomm’s patents, but then the ITC judge refused to grant Qualcomm the only remedy available at the ITC for infringement of its patents: an order excluding the infringing products from importation into the United States.

The ITC judge’s refusal to issue a remedy on a finding of patent infringement is currently under review by the entire ITC, and it should be reversed. The judge claimed that the “public interest” weighed against issuing the exclusion order. But as Professor Kristen Osenga and I explained in a submission to the ITC, this was a misuse of the “public interest.”  It was legally unprecedented to deny a complainant its lawful remedy after the judge found that its rights were violated.  It was also the result of the judge’s own serious misunderstandings of the nature of the smartphone market.

The Hold-Up Hoax

Contrary to the self-serving assertions by Apple and other companies about patent owners allegedly “holding up” innovation, the smartphone industry is defined by a previously unknown rate of new innovation in products and services, of increased competition, and of quality-controlled price reductions.  Hundreds of millions of smartphone users the world over are a testament to this fact. These and other legal and commercial facts were detailed at length by law professors, economists, and former government officials in a recent submission to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).

The FTC should also take note of the growing number of court decisions confirming Apple’s policy of patent infringement.  The FTC initiated an antitrust lawsuit against Qualcomm in the final days of the Obama Administration in January 2017 and the trial just recently concluded. In this lawsuit, the FTC is asserting a claim that Qualcomm is violating the antitrust laws for charging too much for the use of its patents in smartphones. In addition to an Apple executive’s testimony supporting the FTC, another star witness for the FTC alleging that Qualcomm is charging too much for the use of its property was Huawei, the Chinese telecommunications giant that has been officially charged by the U.S. Department of Justice for theft of IP rights of U.S. companies. Less than one month before the Huawei representative took the stand, the U.S. had Canada arrest a top Huawei executive. Another witness for the FTC at the trial, a renowned economist, could not identify a single example of R&D in innovation that had been deterred as a result of Qualcomm’s licensing of its patents. Like the ITC judge’s conjectures about the “public interest,” the FTC’s case is driven by academic theories about “patent holdup” and self-serving complaints about “patent trolls” that are contradicted by real-world evidence in the smartphone industry and by the millions of consumers who benefit from smartphones all over the word.

An Important Message

This is why the recent court decisions holding Apple to account for its patent infringement are important, because they send an important signal that patent infringement is unacceptable, no matter how big the wrongdoer.  Apple is the first company in history to have reached a market cap of $1 trillion, and it has over $200 billion in cash in the bank.  When it was a fledgling startup in San Diego in the 1980s, Qualcomm invented the telecommunications technology that makes all of our phones “smart,” but Qualcomm is the veritable “little guy” compared to Apple. Qualcomm’s market cap is approximately 6.5% of Apple’s $1 trillion market cap last August.  Apple has eight times more cash on hand to cover whatever expenses it may occur than Qualcomm’s annual total revenue.

In recent years, Apple has been leveraging its status as the 800-lb gorilla in the high-tech industry.  As many know, Apple plays hardball with competitors and business partners alike. Unfortunately, this includes Apple using other’s intellectual property.  Qualcomm thus was forced to file numerous patent infringement lawsuits against Apple in multiple countries, and these lawsuits have been dragging on for years.  Last fall, Qualcomm reported that Apple, through its contract manufacturers, has withheld $7 billion (and counting) in royalties it was supposed to be paying for using Qualcomm’s patented technologies, like 4G, in the millions of iPhones it has been selling around the world.  For a company with $1 trillion in value in 2018 and $200+ billion in the bank, a $7 billion liability is no more than a rounding error for Apple, but this loss of revenue is an existential threat to most other companies like Qualcomm.

Efficient Infringement

In sum, Apple is engaging in a practice now called “efficient infringement,” which is increasingly common today, especially among high-tech giants like Apple and Google.  This occurs when a company chooses to infringe another’s patents given its calculation that it will pay less money in a court-ordered judgment than in a properly negotiated license agreement—after years of fighting the patent owner in court and before regulatory tribunals at the Patent Office and after forcing the patent owner to pay millions in legal fees. Too often, companies like Apple really think they can just get away with infringing others’ patent rights because they have the resources to outlast patent owners in these legal challenges.

Next Steps

The United States has been a leader in innovation—its economy has grown for 200 years and people have flourished—as a result of its longstanding commitment to securing the rights of innovators to the fruits of their inventive labors. This was just as true for Thomas Edison, the Wright Brothers, and Nikola Tesla as it is today for companies like Qualcomm. Any economist will tell you: markets can only function when property rights are secured against ongoing violations—it is the viable threat of an injunction that stops the serial trespasser and makes him negotiate with you if he wishes to continue to use your property.  This has been a key factor in the two centuries of success in the U.S. innovation economy.

The recent court decisions are a welcome signal of the rule of law and the protection of the rights of innovators, but they are just the first steps in an important ongoing legal fight. The ITC should reverse the earlier denial of the exclusion order after finding Apple liable for patent infringement.  Companies like Qualcomm will not continue to invest billions in R&D that make innovation possible if they know they will have to spend years in court and before regulatory agencies defending their rights just to win the royalties they should have received in the first place. An ITC exclusion order, like an injunction, is key to discouraging companies from engaging in serial efficient infringement. Similarly, the judge presiding over the FTC trial should rule that the FTC has failed to prove its case given the absence of evidence of any harm to consumers or to innovation.

If the ITC and other judges hearing the ongoing cases follow the basic rules of procedure and the legal requirements of the patent laws, as well as basic rules of evidence, then they will easily conclude that infringers of Qualcomm’s patented innovation should be held responsible for stealing the fruits of its inventive labors.  This means injunctive relief, not just monetary damages. This is what courts in Germany and in China have already done in holding Apple responsible for its past and ongoing violations of Qualcomm’s patent rights.  If this does not happen, then innovation will suffer and everyone loses.

Image Source: Deposit Photos
Copyright: boggy22
ID: 48960821 




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Join the Discussion

12 comments so far.

  • [Avatar for Darryl Gardner]
    Darryl Gardner
    April 15, 2019 01:33 am

    Apple would steal the eyes from it’s dead mother and try to patent such.

  • [Avatar for IS]
    March 22, 2019 08:25 am

    Nice article, Apple has been using NFC patents from Inside Secure and they still haven’t paid a penny

  • [Avatar for Lost In Norway]
    Lost In Norway
    March 20, 2019 02:37 am

    Thanks for the article.

  • [Avatar for Paul Morinville]
    Paul Morinville
    March 19, 2019 10:14 pm

    Apple was issued an injunction in China for infringing on Qualcomm patents. In just two days, Apple was able to determine it could remove the “minor functionality”, which was the reason for the injunction, and they can update their operating system and push that update out to their customers in just a couple more days.

    Apple’s disingenuous public interest argument is thereby slayed.

  • [Avatar for Jim]
    March 19, 2019 09:43 pm

    >> Qualcomm is the veritable “little guy” compared to Apple

    Right. QCOM’s own data shows they collect more than 25% of all patent royalties in the world. Not 25% of cellular phone royalties, or even all telecommunications royalties. 25% of all patent royalties in all fields. Communications, computers, med devices, pharmaceuticals, chemicals, materials, aeronautics, automotive, energy, and every other field where inventions are patented. It boggles the mind.

  • [Avatar for Josh Malone]
    Josh Malone
    March 19, 2019 09:32 pm

    This is mind blowing.The $1 trillion company is bullying the $65B company. Where does that leave independent inventors and small businesses?

  • [Avatar for Jason Lee]
    Jason Lee
    March 19, 2019 07:00 pm

    Apple has robbed everyone from Samsung, WiLAN, VirnetX, Qualcomm….. the list is long and as they own multi Billions in back pay to these companies for the theft of their IPs, thanks in no part to the PTAB, EBay,Alice SCOTUS rulings. Its time Silicon Valley pays up. Inventors and IP holders need to get paid. Its time Congress wakes up and starts working for the people and makes patents great again for everyone and kills off all the loopholes Silicon Valley have created to avoid paying for patent licenses. Apple is a Trillion Dollar company that have taken and killed off and scared off 100s of new inventions in America. Its time the Pigs like Apple, Amazon, and Google’s… pay up!!

  • [Avatar for Steven Baker]
    Steven Baker
    March 19, 2019 06:15 pm

    Great article on how the Apples and Googles today manage the process of sabotaging judicial expedience and deflecting accountability.

    When you think of Qualcomm, you picture a large successful innovator that has enhanced the very product that Apple sells, as have other small innovative contributors who lack the resources to defend themselves. Yet Qualcomm remains a fraction of Apple’s market cap and bears an enormous weight trying to get compensated for their [borrowed from until ordered to pay] intellectual property.

    Think of a tiny player like VirnetX with employees that include the scientists who developed the secure communications link processes that Apple touts when promoting the security of their products. Even though Apple has lost four trials against VirnetX, Apple has been able to stretch the process for more than eight years. The cost of litigating for VirnetX has been crippling even though VirnetX has won in court each time. Even worse, VirnetX has lost eight years of time to monetize their patents as other infringing entities sit on the bench, watching for a court mandate.

    Go Qualcomm! Go VirnetX! The gorilla efficient infringers of your intellectual property do not care…until something makes the Apples and Googles hurt a little more for efficiently infringing.

  • [Avatar for Pro Say]
    Pro Say
    March 19, 2019 04:54 pm

    Big +1 Adam — thanks for setting things straight.

    Apple is: One. Bad. Apple.

  • [Avatar for Raymond Van Dyke]
    Raymond Van Dyke
    March 19, 2019 04:29 pm

    Adam can sure say it like it is. Efficient infringement is an evil, albeit business efficient, practice that has undermined the entire fabric of our patent system. Our Founders were well aware of the importance of innovation to our Society, and we Americans crave it to no end. But, as is well known, it is the small inventor community that is most prolific for the big innovations. When big tech steals from the little guy, they steal from us all. In this fight, Qualcomm is David with his slingshot felling the mighty Goliath.

  • [Avatar for EG]
    March 19, 2019 03:49 pm

    Hey Adam,

    Great article! Efficient infringement by Apple and the other SV tech multinational Goliaths needs to be exposed for what it is: theft of someone else’s patent property.

  • [Avatar for Frederick]
    March 19, 2019 01:41 pm