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Google Joins Stable of Tech Companies Licensing Their LTE Patents as a Group

The move comes the same week that the search giant was in court defending its patent-licensing practices.

Alex Emanuel Koch / Shutterstock

Google said Thursday that it will join a group of technology companies willing to offer access to their LTE-related patents as part of a single patent license.

The search giant is joining the effort set up in October 2012 by Via Licensing, a Dolby Laboratories subsidiary that focuses on so-called patent pools.

With any technology standard, there may be a bunch of companies that hold related patents. In general, companies that agree to have their patented technology become part of a standard do so with the understanding that they will broadly license their intellectual property for a reasonable rate. Grouping those patents into a single pool makes it easier for companies that want to use the technology too, while also being less work for the patent holders.

Although the patent holder may get less revenue per unit, being part of a standard like LTE or Wi-Fi or Bluetooth means that the technology is more likely to be widely used, while standards also ensure that gear from a variety of makers can communicate.

Google’s move to join the Via Licensing effort comes just a week after it spent time in a San Francisco appeals court trying to defend itself against charges that it did not uphold its duty to license its technology to Microsoft in a reasonable manner. By joining the LTE pool, Google could limit the amount of revenue it gets from its patents related to LTE, but it also protects the company against future similar charges.

Not long ago, Google’s strategy appeared to be centered on using Motorola’s largely standards-related patents as leverage to protect Android from suits by Apple and others. However, the company has struggled in court with judges and juries skeptical of assigning high value to patents that the company is obligated to offer on a reasonable and non-discriminatory basis.

Google declined to comment on whether its thinking has shifted, but Google patent licensing manager Brian Blasius told Re/code, “We recognize that [standards-essential patent] licensing is complex and believe that the Via LTE patent pool provides a creative solution which can meet the needs of both licensors and licensees.”

As for whether Google would offer other technology via patent pools, Blasius said in an emailed statement: “We continually evaluate various avenues to make our patents available for prospective licensees. We will continue to evaluate options for other standards.”

Via has been public about the pricing it is seeking for the pool. It charges between $2.10 and $3 per handset for the patent pool. The revenue is then split largely based on the number of patents held by each company in the pool.

Other companies licensing their LTE technology as part of Via’s pool include AT&T, Hewlett-Packard, KDDI, NTT Docomo, SK Telecom, Telecom Italia, Telefónica and ZTE. Via announced in early 2013 that China Mobile and Deutsche Telekom were joining the pool. Google is the first company to join the pool since.

“We knew that would take some time to cultivate a process where the pool would gain momentum,” said John Ehler, director of Via’s wireless licensing program. Via manages several other patent pools, including one for the AAC audio standard used by Apple and others.

Ehler said the move should encourage other companies to sign up — both those that have LTE-related patents to license as well as those making devices. Ehler wouldn’t say who has signed up to license the patents or even say how many companies have signed up.

While Via is unlikely to get companies that specialize in patent licensing — such as Qualcomm or, now, Nokia — it is hoping to attract other companies that simply want a cost-effective way to get revenue from their patents and fulfill their obligations to license them on a fair and reasonable basis.

As for Google’s case in the appeals court, it was unique in that the trial judge actually tried to assign a value to such standards-essential patents. Google is appealing the means the judge used, its applicability in the Microsoft case and other issues. The jury in the Microsoft case found that Motorola and Google acted in bad faith in carrying out their standards-related commitments and awarded roughly $14 million in damages. Google is also seeking to have those damages thrown out.

If you want, you can watch the full hour-long proceedings from this week’s hearing (see video below; the judges take the bench and arguments begin about 10 minutes in).

But, if you are not a big legal nerd like me, here’s what you need to know.

Both sides made the expected arguments. The judges appeared skeptical of some of the largely procedural arguments put forth by Motorola/Google attorney Kathleen Sullivan. But they also put tough questions to Microsoft, so it’s difficult to read too much into their reactions. A ruling isn’t expected for a couple of months at least.

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