News Nokia, — May 14, 2012 15:50 — 0 Comments
Mobile phone maker steps up quest for royalties from rivals that it says infringe its patents
In a desperate search for cash to tide it over until sales ramp up of new products, Nokia is stepping up its quest for royalties from rivals that it says infringe its patents in their technology.
Last week it filed cases relating to 45 patents in the US and Germany against HTC, Viewsonic and BlackBerry maker RIM.
Nokia already earns €500m (£401m) annually from patent royalties in key areas of mobile telephony from a number of companies – including Apple, which last year was forced to admit defeat after a series of legal skirmishes and signed a contract worth millions every quarter for the use of Nokia patents in its iPhone and iPad.
Some analysts reckon a more determined application of Nokia’s patent rights could boost its income by hundreds more millions of euros a year – a badly needed source of income at a time when its core mobile phone business is losing money while it shifts its top-end smartphone portfolio from its Symbian operating system to Microsoft’s Windows Phone. Alternatively, a sale of parts of that patent portfolio could generate billions of euros.
Either way, at a time when its future is being threatened by falling sales and a loss of market share, Nokia’s patents have emerged as the company’s most valuable and stable assets. Their full exploitation could be crucial for its longer-term survival.
“They should be doing this. The only questions is: why did they wait so long?” said Alexander Poltorak, chief executive of patent consultancy General Patent.
Nokia has already served a warning to newcomers in the mobile industry with whom it doesn’t yet have licensing agreements, saying it aimed to boost its royalty revenue.
HTC and Viewsonic both use Google’s Android software; Nokia claims they infringe its mobile technology and software patents.
For HTC, the latest lawsuits mean its business is coming under increased legal pressure. It already pays a levy to Microsoft on its Android devices, after the software company sued it over software patents it owns in the US.
Apple is also suing it over similar claims in the US, seeking an import ban on some products. And now Nokia has weighed in.
HTC saw its profits drop precipitously in the more recent quarter as sales in the US fell off.
Others using Android are likely to be among the next targeted by Nokia. Analysts say it’s likely soon to go after top Chinese and Indian vendors, as well as Amazon, whose Kindle Fire uses a version of Android.
“I would expect its next targets to include ZTE, Huawei and Micromax,” said analyst Tero Kuittinen at Finnish mobile firm Alekstra.
Nokia declined to comment on other possible targets, but spokesman Mark Durrant said in an email: “It’s clear from last week’s press release about actions against HTC, RIM and Viewsonic that we are taking new steps, moving beyond essential patents to other patents for which we have no obligation to license at all.”
Durrant explained to the Guardian that of the 45 patents, four are deemed “standards essential”, for which it is obliged to license them under Frand (fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory) terms.
All four are being deployed against Viewsonic in German court. “Viewsonic has so far refused to discuss licensing with us, which left is with no choice but to file suit,” Durrant said.
The other 41 are “implementation patents” – proprietary innovations which have not been deemed essential to any standard, and which Nokia is not obliged to license.
“This is why we have flagged this as a next step for us,” Durrant said. “Our activity to date has been primarily focused on licensing our essential patents and we have around 40 licensees for them (and of course, we also have licensees to standards essential patents from many other companies).
“These actions are primarily around implementation patents, which represent the majority of the patents in our portfolio (we have around 10,000 patent families, of which only around 1,200 have been declared as essential to one or more patents).”
ZTE, Huawei, Micromax and Amazon were not immediately available for comment.
The reasons for the more aggressive stance are not hard to find. Sales of Nokia’s new Lumia phones have not compensated for diving sales of legacy products as the group loses out to smartphone offerings from the likes of Apple Inc, and analysts have said its cash reserves of €4.9 bn are likely to dwindle.
Both Standard & Poor’s and Fitch Ratings have recently cut their credit ratings on Nokia to ”junk” status.
Turning the tables
Nokia’s position as a patent powerhouse, ranking along with Qualcomm and Ericsson as a holder of the largest patent portfolios in the industry, goes back more than 20 years.
In 1989, Motorola forced it to pay more than $10m to settle a patent infringement claim, one reason Nokia has ensured that the €45bn invested since then in mobile research and development has been as well protected by patents as possible.
Before that, the then conglomerate making everything from rubber boots to televisions had famously protected more innovations at its toilet paper business than at its cellphone unit.
So how much are Nokia’s patents worth? One pointer is that after a legal battle against Apple in 2009–2011, Nokia gets royalties from each iPhone sold.
Nokia also has the successful example of its partner Microsoft, which has signed up 10 vendors – including HTC and Samsung – to pay licensing fees for their Android devices. HTC is paying Microsoft an estimated $5 royalty for each Android phone it sells.
A similar fee for its stronger wireless patent portfolio could give Nokia $800m this year alone if it signed up just half of Android makers, although in reality such an amount is unlikely since Nokia already has cross-licensing deals with some of them.
Motorola’s price: $750,000 per patent
Google’s planned $12.5bn acquisition of Motorola Mobility, which is now only awaiting final approval from the Chinese authorities, underlined the value of intellectual property in the fast-changing telecoms world, where established players are seeking to keep out newer rivals.
The search giant is seen by many analysts as paying a high premium to patch over its lack of intellectual property in the wireless arena.
But the deal doesn’t mean Nokia can’t go after Google suppliers, as patents the Finnish company licensed to Motorola itself are not transferable to others even in an acquisition. Also, such agreements typically only last between five and 10 years, although details of the 2010 deal aren’t public.
Another example of the value of patents came last July when a group of six firms including Apple, Research In Motion and Ericsson paid $4.5bn for 6,000 patents of bankrupt Nortel Networks, in the largest public sale of its kind. The price was about three times what the sale had been expected to raise.
The auction, in which the group fended off Google, pushed the value of a single patent or patent family to $750,000 – a price tag which would value Nokia’s 10,000 patents at $7.5bn or roughly $2 a share.
(Google moved to acquire Motorola Mobility immediately after losing that, and was forced to bid significantly above its opening price to close the deal.)
Yet even that could undervalue Nokia’s assets. Google is paying even more for a patent in its acquisition of Motorola Mobility, whose strong intellectual property portfolio offers an entry ticket to the wireless industry.
Analysts at Bernstein Research said this is the maximum value Nokia could fetch for its patents, if it splits managing portfolio to a separate company and boosts royalty-revenues three-fold.
A more likely if conservative valuation would be €0.5 per share, still a big chunk of Nokia’s share price of €2.47 late on Friday.
So far Nokia chief executive Stephen Elop has said there were no plans for a sale, a stance that industry experts said made sense given its success in earlier patent litigation.
Poltorak said: “You only get about 10% through a sale, compared with enforcing the patent. Nokia can make much more money enforcing the patents.”
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