Qualcomm sues iPhone makers in escalating patent war with Apple

Qualcomm sues iPhone makers in escalating patent war with Apple
SAN DIEGO—Qualcomm filed a breach of contract lawsuit late Tuesday against four Taiwanese contract manufacturers that build iPhones and iPads for Apple — the latest salvo in an escalating war between two tech giants over patent royalties.

Qualcomm’s court action is in response to Apple’s steps last month to block its contract manufacturers from paying Qualcomm for use of its cellular patents in iPhones and iPads.

“Apple is definitely behind this, and certainly what the contract manufacturers would say is the reason they are not paying,” said Don Rosenberg, Qualcomm’s general counsel. “Our response to that is you are big, sophisticated companies. You have contractual obligations. You have license agreements with us that don’t involve Apple. You are responsible for paying that.”

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The lawsuit falls short of more drastic moves that media outlets speculated Qualcomm would pursue against Apple — including seeking to ban imports of iPhones and iPads into the U.S.

Last week, Bloomberg reported Qualcomm would ask the U.S. International Trade Commission to issue an injunction prohibiting iPhone imports, citing sources familiar with the company’s plans. The story was widely repeated.

Rosenberg declined to comment on why Qualcomm chose a lawsuit in San Diego Federal Court against Apple’s contract manufacturers rather than going to the U.S. International Trade Commission to bar iPhone imports.

“We don’t like suing our licensees,” Rosenberg said, noting that in the past decade the company has brought just one patent infringement case against a smartphone maker. “And we won’t unless we are really put in a corner and forced to do that, and we are forced to do that here.”

The lawsuit names iPhone/iPad assemblers Hon Hai Precision Industry Co. Ltd., known as Foxconn Technology Group; Pegatron Corp.; Wistron Corp. and Compal Electronics — all based in Taiwan, but with manufacturing operations in China and elsewhere.

All have long-standing patent license agreements with Qualcomm and continue to pay patent royalties to Qualcomm on smartphones and tablets that they make for other companies besides Apple, Rosenberg said.

The lawsuit seeks unpaid royalties of at least $1 billion (U.S.) and damages, as well as attorney fees and other costs.

“What they are saying is Apple is not paying us, so we are not paying you, and Apple has told us not to pay you,” Rosenberg said. “And we said, that is interesting, but that is between you and Apple.”

He continued, “Presumably you have a contract with Apple. You ought to go enforce that contract against Apple. I hope they take that action.”

Over the past eight months, Qualcomm’s patent licensing business has been under fierce attack by anti-monopoly regulators and technology giants, including Apple, Samsung and Intel.

The Korea Fair Trade Commission fined Qualcomm more than $850 million and seeks to dismantle the way it licenses its patents. The U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) sued Qualcomm in January over similar grounds, and Samsung and Intel have filed friend of the court briefs supporting the FTC’s case.

Apple joined the assault shortly after the FTC and perhaps has been the most aggressive in manoeuvres against Qualcomm, which believes that Apple is behind a “global attack on the company.”

It is a complicated dispute. Apple reimburses Foxconn and the other contract manufacturers for patent royalties owed to Qualcomm.

Early this year, it withheld $1 billion in reimbursements on the grounds that Qualcomm had reneged on a separate royalty “rebate” agreement with Apple in retaliation for Apple’s co-operation with antitrust regulators.

Then last month, Apple quit reimbursing Foxconn and the others altogether for Qualcomm patent royalties — claiming it couldn’t pay until the dispute was resolved.

As a result, Qualcomm slashed its financial forecast for the year.

Qualcomm pioneered a good portion of 3G/4G cellular radio technology and holds thousands of patents on its inventions. Its technology is inside nearly every smartphone.

The company licenses patents based on the price of the entire device, and it has agreed to provide certain patents under “fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory” terms because they are included in wireless industry standards.

Apple and regulators claim Qualcomm abuses its market power to overcharge for “standard-essential patents” and block competition. These companies are pushing for patent royalties based on the cost of the cellular modem chip instead of the entire phone, and they want Qualcomm to agree to license not only smartphone makers but also rival chip outfits, such as Intel and Samsung.

Qualcomm has counter-sued Apple, is appealing the Korea Fair Trade Commission’s decision and has asked a Northern California federal judge to dismiss the FTC case. A hearing on the dismissal motion is slated for mid-June.
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