As Patent Wars Grind On, a Tiny Gain for Apple

A ritual battle, leading mostly to stalemate.

Photographer: Roger Whiteway

A ritual battle, leading mostly to stalemate.

Bloomberg’s Joel Rosenblatt writes about Thomas Dunham, the foreman of the jury that awarded Apple Inc. $119 million in damages in its California patent infringement suit against Samsung Electronics Co. Dunham, a retired IBM engineer and an inventor in his own right, headed a well-educated jury that, while finding mainly for Apple (Samsung got a $158,000 award on its counter-claim), gave the company far less than the $2 billion Apple sought.

It’s tempting to read the result as an implicit signal to Apple and other aggressive tech litigants that they’re probably not going to win enough to meaningfully affect their businesses. The jury knew enough about tech to know that $119 million is a rounding error for Apple. Even that result isn’t really final. It’s still possible, as patent analyst Florian Mueller writes, that Apple’s underlying patents in this case could be overturned, nullifying the award.

USPTO Patent GrantsBut if you think that the relative paltriness of the award and the drumbeat of criticism of “patent trolls” indicates that an end to the patent wars is in sight, take a look at the chart below. It shows the number of computer industry patents granted by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

In 2012, that number reached 138,239, a 14 percent increase in one year. And that’s a lagging indicator; the patents granted now are mainly for applications from several years ago. The supply of patents to fight over is increasing, and in this industry, as in many others, an excess of supply tends to create new channels of demand. So don’t be surprised if despite all the hand-wringing over unnecessary patent litigation, the patent-lawsuit fires flare up mightily before they burn out.

An earlier version of this post appeared in the Market Now daily email. Click here to register and subscribe. Or here to follow @markgimein on Twitter.

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