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Mobile Patent Wars: Any End In Sight?


Just by coincidence, on the same day that armies of attorneys for Apple and Samsung were once again squaring off in court over a high-stakes patent dispute, I happened to have a brief chat on Thursday with San Francisco attorney Robert Van Nest.

Van Nest is a high-powered commercial litigator who knows a lot about smartphone patents and the current Apple/Android wars. His firm, Keker & Van Nest, represented the Android smartphone-maker HTC in its recent patent battles with Apple. He also defended Android in another legal fight this year, when he represented Google against Oracle’s claims that Android infringed on Oracle’s Java programming system.

The latter case ended up mostly a win for Google, although Oracle is pursuing appeals. HTC, meanwhile, recently settled its dispute with Apple by negotiating a broad licensing agreement over mobile technology, a few months after Apple won its $1 billion jury verdict against Samsung.

I asked Van Nest, who wasn’t involved in the Samsung case, if he thought the HTC settlement has any broader significance for the mobile patent wars. Not surprisingly, he said he was bound by confidentiality agreements that limited what he could say. But he seemed to acknowledge a possible inflection point.

“One significant thing is that it does show that Apple is willing to license the smartphone technology around the iPhone,” Van Nest said. Citing the famous vow that Steve Jobs made to his biographer, Van Nest added, “according to what Mr. Jobs had said, his goal was to destroy Android and change it so it couldn’t effectively compete with the iPhone. This does signal a change in approach.

“HTC now has a license around smartphone technology and it’s going to remain a competitor in the market,” he continued. “That’s significant.”

I also asked Van Nest about the challenges of arguing arcane tech disputes before a jury that may have little tech training. During the Oracle/Google trial, he brought a large filing cabinet into the courtroom and used it as a prop to demonstrate the structure of certain computer programming tools. Some critics disputed the metaphor, but it appeared to be effective.

As an attorney preparing for trial, Van Nest said, “you’re always looking for something like the file cabinet. Unless you can break down the concepts so they can be easily understood, you’ll be at a disadvantage with the jury.”

Van Nest may be looking for more metaphors in coming months. He’s also representing HTC in a patent suit brought by Kodak, in a case where the latter is suing both HTC and Apple over digital camera technology. And he’s gearing up to defend some of Google’s sophisticated advertising sales software against a patent lawsuit by a British company.