Bloomberg News

Apple, Microsoft Patent Lawyers Spend Fridays in Mannheim

February 01, 2012

(Updates with Samsung comment in fifth paragraph.)

Jan. 20 (Bloomberg) -- If you were searching for Apple Inc.’s European patent lawyers on a Friday, you would have better luck looking in the German city of Mannheim than on the golf course or in a pub.

Judges in the southwest German city hold most patent hearings on the last day of the week and will issue rulings in smartphone disputes involving Apple, Samsung Electronics Co. and Motorola Mobility Holdings Inc. over four of the next five Fridays starting today. The city, along with Dusseldorf and Munich, has become the center of European patent litigation as companies seek quick rulings from German judges that influence courts throughout the continent.

“If you have a big multinational corporation setting up a patent litigation strategy for Europe, they will almost always sue in Germany,” said Rowan Freeland, a litigator at Simmons & Simmons LLP in London. “Maybe you add other countries as well, but if you have to choose, it’s almost certainly Germany.”

Mobile device makers filed dozens of cases in the three cities last year. Samsung today lost a patent-infringement suit filed against Apple in the Mannheim court. The judges also heard another suit between the two rivals. A hearing in two disputes between Motorola Mobility and Microsoft Corp. originally scheduled for this afternoon were postponed until next month.

Samsung said it was disappointed by today’s ruling and added that the decision isn’t indicative for other pending cases.

‘Throw in the Towel’

Germany’s role in the European economy is just as important as the speed of the rulings, issued by specialist judges, said Peter-Michael Weisse, an attorney at intellectual-property litigation firm Wildanger in Dusseldorf.

“If you want to conquer the European market and you’re being stopped in Germany, most of the time that’s enough to throw in the towel,” Weisse said. “Many companies say if they cannot sell in Germany, it’s no use to go ahead with a product somewhere else.”

London and The Hague, Netherlands, compete with Germany as venues for European patent litigation. The Netherlands’ disadvantage is a smaller economy, while the U.K. is hindered by high legal costs, Freeland said. While there is no pan-European patent, courts often look for similar rulings in other countries.

“Litigants want judges who know about patents, they want a procedure which is inexpensive, one which is fast, allowing for a ruling within a year, and one where the result will secure a commercial advantage,” Freeland said. “Holland and the U.K. each provide three of those. Germany provides all four.”

Three-Hour Hearings

Germany has no U.S.-style pretrial evidence exchange and the facts are submitted in writing. In the U.K., lawyers must present their cases at oral hearings, and a trial can take as many as 14 days, said Thomas Bopp, a patent litigator at Gleiss Lutz in Dusseldorf. By contrast, an average German hearing takes three hours and the court may hear more than one suit in a day.

“German lawyers’ rates aren’t necessarily less expensive than those of British attorneys, but it consumes more hours if you have to dig through floods of documents and appear for weeks in court,” Bopp said.

Germany has become a key venue for the lawsuits between Apple and Samsung over mobile technologies and designs since the iPhone maker last year accused its South Korean rival of copying products. Samsung, also a chip supplier for Apple, edged out the U.S. company as the top smartphone seller in the third quarter, helped by its Galaxy products.

MPEG 2-Standard

Another factor speeding German rulings is the separation of infringement suits and actions seeking to nullify patents. While in most jurisdictions a defendant can ask the court to rule that the patent is invalid, a tactic that potentially can delay proceedings, in Germany he has to go to a separate specialized court.

German judges have had an important role in intellectual property litigation for years, said Thomas Kuehnen, presiding judge at the Dusseldorf Higher Regional Court. He pointed to a Dusseldorf ruling in the 2000s that led to the resolution of hundreds of lawsuits over the MPEG 2-Standard, a technology to store video and audio data on DVDs. The court ruling formed the basis of a global settlement involving more than 700 patents in 54 countries.

Kuehnen says German judges develop expertise because of the number of cases they review. While about 50 patent suits a year are filed in the U.K. and the Netherlands, as many as 1,300 reach German courts, about half of them in Dusseldorf.

Expert Opinions

While patent suits can be filed in any German city, lawyers prefer Dusseldorf and Mannheim, because the courts have specialized patent-infringement chambers. Judges in others cities, who rarely get these types of cases, need more time and seek expert opinions on the technology more often than their Dusseldorf and Mannheim colleagues.

In the last three or four years, about 60 percent of cases filed in Dusseldorf involve parties from outside of Germany, Judge Kuehnen said.

“Multinationals from Asia, the U.K. or the U.S. are changing the litigation landscape here. It has become much more complex,” Kuehnen said. “We see the globalization in our courtroom.”

--With assistance by Stephanie Bodoni in Luxembourg and Simon Thiel in London. Editors: Anthony Aarons, Christopher Scinta, Simon Thiel

To contact the reporter on this story: Karin Matussek in Mannheim via kmatussek@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Anthony Aarons at aaarons@Bloomberg.net.


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