Smartphones and Software Patents

I will be speaking at Santa Clara Law School’s outstanding conference about Solutions to the Software Problem tomorrow.  It promises to be a great event, with academics, public interest advocates, and government officials all weighing in.

As a lead-in to the conference, I want to discuss an oft repeated statistic: that there are 250,000 patents that might be infringed by any given smartphone. I’m going to assume that number is accurate, and I have no reason to doubt its veracity. This number, many argue, is a key reason why we must have wholesale reform – no piecemeal action will solve the problem.

Here are my thoughts on the subject:

1. Not all of these patents are in force. Surely, many of them expired due to lack of maintenance fee payments.

2. Not all of the remaining patents are asserted. After all, we don’t see every smartphone manufacturer being sued 250,000 times.

3. Many of these patents are related to each other or are otherwise aggregated together. Thus, there are opportunities for global settlements.

4. Even if you think that 250,000 is huge number of patents (and it is, really – there’s not disputing that), it is unclear to me why anyone is surprised by the number when you consider what’s in a smartphone. More specifically:

  • A general purpose computer and all that comes with it (CPU, RAM, I/O interface, operating system, etc.).
  • Active matrix display
  • Touch screen display
  • Cellular voice technology
  • 1x data networking
  • 3G data networking
  • 4G data networking
  • Wi-Fi data networking
  • Bluetooth data networking
  • GPS technology (and associated navigation)
  • Accelerometer technology
  • Digital camera (including lens and image processing)
  • Audio recording and playback
  • Battery technology
  • Force feedback technology (phone vibration and haptic feedback)
  • Design patents

The areas above are by and large “traditional” patent areas – they aren’t software for the most part. And there are thousands of patents in each category, before we even get to the potential applications of the smartphone that might be patented (and these are of greater debate, of course).

So, yes, there are many, many patents associated with the smartphone, but what else would you expect when you cram all of these features into a single device? Perhaps smartphones are the focus of the software patent problem because, well, they do everything, and so they might infringe everything. I’m not convinced that this should drive a wholesale reform of the system. Maybe it just means that smartphones are underpriced given what they include. Not that I’m complaining.