Apple Inc. (AAPL:US), Google Inc. (GOOG:US) and rival handset and software makers, seeking to defend their turf in the surging mobile-phone market, are competing for top patent lawyers as litigation floods courtrooms worldwide.
Google is looking for a vice president of patents, a new position, said a person familiar with the plans, who declined to be named because the position isn’t advertised. The company, which is also hiring a manager of patent acquisitions, said today it agreed to buy Motorola Mobility Holdings Inc. for $12.5 billion, gaining wireless patents in its biggest deal ever. Apple created a new position last year to head intellectual- property litigation, and about half of the 18 legal positions Intel Corp. (INTC:US) aims to fill focus on intellectual property.
At stake is leadership in the mobile-phone market, which is predicted by IHS Inc. (IHS:US) to rise 34 percent to $206.6 billion this year. Even before today’s deal, companies led by Apple, Microsoft Corp. (MSFT:US) and Google had spent more than $5 billion this year on patents that may help them collect fees or land partnerships. They need patent lawyers who can hammer out licensing deals, weigh intellectual property purchases and pursue or defend against lawsuits.
“The world of intellectual property, and more specifically patent transactions, is really heating up,” said Steve John, managing director at attorney search consultants Major, Lindsey & Africa LLC in San Francisco. “There are a number of technology companies that are essentially retooling how they think about patents.”
While companies still depend on outside firms, they also need in-house attorneys to mesh patent strategies with larger corporate aims. Disputes over smartphones are surging in the wake of the 2007 debut of the iPhone, which has become Apple’s best-selling product (AAPL:US) and turned it into the biggest smartphone maker. After winning customers from Research In Motion Ltd. (RIM) and Nokia Oyj (NOK1V), Apple is now sparring with Mountain View, California- based Google in the market for mobile-phone software.
Today’s acquisition of Libertyville, Illinois-based Motorola Mobility gives Google more than 17,000 patents it can leverage in negotiations with competitors including Apple.
Google’s Android is the most-used software for smartphones, with manufacturing split among companies including Samsung Electronics (005930) Co., HTC Corp. (2498) and Motorola Mobility. Cupertino, California-based Apple has accused all three of copying iPhone inventions and filed patent-infringement complaints (AAPL:US) in the U.S., Europe, Asia and Australia.
“We need to protect Apple’s intellectual property when companies steal our ideas,” Apple said last week in a statement concerning Samsung. Kristin Huguet, a spokeswoman for Apple, declined to comment further.
To reinforce its efforts, Apple last year hired Noreen Krall from Sun Microsystems Inc. to oversee intellectual- property litigation. B.J. Watrous, formerly Hewlett-Packard Co. (HPQ:US)’s deputy general counsel, replaced Richard Lutton Jr. as Apple’s chief patent counsel earlier this year.
Microsoft, Oracle (ORCL:US) Challenges
Google’s operating system is facing patent challenges on other fronts too. Microsoft, which contends its technology is included in Android, has sued companies that refused to pay licensing fees. Targets include Motorola Mobility and Barnes & Noble Inc. (BKS:US), whose Nook reader runs on Android. And Oracle Corp. has accused Google of using its Java programming language to develop Android, seeking billions of dollars in damages.
In a blog posting Aug. 3, Google accused Apple, Microsoft and Oracle of using patents to wage a “hostile, organized campaign” against Android. To help fight back, Google hired Suzanne Michel, a former Federal Trade Commission deputy director and one of the agency’s top intellectual property officials. Michel was the chief writer of a patent report the FTC issued in March.
Aaron Zamost, a spokesman for Google, declined to comment.
As the smartphone fight plays out in courts, companies also are navigating the process of acquiring new patents. In June, a group led by Apple and Microsoft won an auction of patents owned by Nortel Networks Corp. after bidding up the price to $4.5 billion, beating out Google in the largest-ever patent auction. Intel had vied for the assets, and later joined forces with Google to try to outdo the Apple-led group.
Apple and Samsung are also said to be considering bids for InterDigital Inc. (IDCC:US), owner of about 1,300 mobile-phone patents. Eastman Kodak Co. (EKDKQ:US), the camera company whose shares have plunged this year, has put up 1,100 digital-imaging patents for sale, and Google bought more than 1,000 patents from International Business Machines Corp. last month.
This competition to buy intellectual property shows how quickly the market can change, as newcomers to smartphones such as Apple and Google outsell incumbents such as Nokia and RIM. Computer industry leaders, including Microsoft and Intel, are trying to make sure they don’t get locked out.
“You don’t see a lot of these industry wars unless there’s market displacement,” said Jim Gatto, a partner at Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP in McLean, Virginia. “When you look at the companies who have really innovated and driven the market for smartphones, many of them weren’t in the phone market five years ago.”
Intel, the largest chipmaker, has taken notice. The Santa Clara, California-based company, whose chips dominate personal computers, is trying to extend the reach of its processors into smartphones, tablets and consumer electronics.
Intel is hiring more patent lawyers to bolster the protection of its intellectual property in those markets, said Chuck Mulloy, a spokesman. About half of the 18 legal positions Intel now seeks to fill will focus on intellectual property.
“We are increasing our focus on innovation in new business segments,” Mulloy said. “This is a reflection of those efforts.”
Technology companies seeking top patent attorneys may be vying for potential hires against the same law firms that want to represent them.
“The best firms are fighting over the same high-quality candidates,” said Timothy Alger, a partner at Perkins Coie LLP in Palo Alto, California, and a former deputy general counsel at Google. “The tech companies also want to hire the good ones in- house. And then there’s the challenge of retaining them at firms where it is extremely difficult to make partner.”
The demand is keenest for lawyers who also have training in computer science or engineering and can handle both sides of the arguments in patent disputes or represent companies before Congress.
“They need people who can speak with the technical knowledge they need,” said Robyn Ginsberg, a managing director at BCG Attorney Search. When presenting arguments in courts or on Capitol Hill, “engineers aren’t always articulate. Why do that when you can get an attorney who can speak both languages - - the engineering and the legalese.”
Backwater No More
That trend is reflected in what students want to offer to potential employers, Stanford Law School Dean Larry Kramer said. As many as 10 percent of new law students have doctoral or master’s degrees in engineering or biological science, with an even greater percentage bringing undergraduate degrees in those fields, he said.
The school itself has shifted curriculum to reflect demand for lawyers with technical knowledge, and more than 20 percent of students now get joint degrees in law and science or engineering, he said.
When he graduated in the 1980s, patent law “was a backwater field,” Kramer said. “There’s been a huge uptick, and we’re just at the beginning.”
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