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We all know about the patent wars that have dominated the mobile industry over the last couple of years.

Apple and Samsung, Motorola and Microsoft, Oracle and Google — to name just a few. But there are also the patent disputes that you never hear about.

Many of these lawsuits are filed by little-known companies whose sole purpose in being is to bring patent actions and collect money for their owners. Often dubbed patent trolls, such non-practicing entities now make up the bulk of patent suits.

Within the broader category of non-practicing entities are different types of firms, including defensive patent collectors, start-ups as well as companies whose sole business is suing companies with products in the market. That last category now accounts for more than three-fifths of all patent action, according to a study by Santa Clara University Law School professor Colleen V. Chien.

Chien, who presented her findings at a Department of Justice/Federal Trade Commission event on Monday, said that while the economics of bringing suit help keep overall patent actions in check, the economies of scale have made patent trolling into a profitable business.

First of all, while companies that make goods are typically countersued for infringing on their target’s patents, non-practicing entities don’t make anything and therefore can’t be countersued.

Secondly, while big companies like Apple, Samsung and Google rack up huge legal fees in their battles, non-practicing entities have found a more cost-effective option. Much like injury victims, the patent firms often find lawyers willing to work on a contingency basis.

That leaves the companies with only the direct expenses related to their lawsuits, which are themselves often minimized by filing multiple similar suits against different companies. That spreads out the costs and lessens the impact of losing any one case.

As a result, the incentives that may be forcing deals such as Apple’s recent settlement with HTC aren’t having the same effect on the non-practicing entities.

“The assumption is that companies will eventually tire of the smartphone wars between operating companies,” Chien told AllThingsD. “Suits invite countersuits and are expensive, disruptive, and messy. These restraints don’t apply to companies that assert patents as a business model.”

And for every suit brought, there are dozens more that get settled before a court action is filed, in large part because the targets know it is cheaper to settle in many cases than to fight things out.

While many of these non-practicing entities have names few people have ever heard of, the field has spawned some big players, perhaps most notably Nathan Myhrvold’s Intellectual Ventures. (Several spinoff businesses have come out of Myhrvold’s firm, which touts its in-house invention capabilities in addition to its collection of acquired patents.)

Even start-ups, particularly well-funded ones, are finding themselves in the crosshairs, Chien said.

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Technology companies used to condemn what critics call “patent trolls,” ventures that profit from innovations they themselves often had no hand in creating. Now, some of those companies are taking pages from the trolls’ playbooks. To bring in extra cash, some big names in the tech industry are spinning off their patents into separate entities, with the aim of pressuring other companies to license the technology and suing when they can’t reach deals.

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 This Might Be the Most Epic Video Game Patent Application Ever

Patent applications let people dream big. Someone out there's got a killer idea for the Litter Box of the Future or fart-proof underwear. There may be hundreds of hurdles to cross before any such thing gets made, but a patent lets them plant a flag in the land of unclaimed ideaspace. More »

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Doofus writes "The Washington Post has a profile of Roger Fidler, who 'invented' the tablet computer in the 1990s, while working as a visionary for newspaper firm Knight-Ridder. He is now embroiled in the Apple/Samsung legal war, as an expert witness. Fidler admits that other prior art influenced him, such as the tablets being used as computing devices in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Prior prior art."


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A judge has ordered Google and Motorola to give Apple details related to the Android development process and Google's acquisitions of Android and Motorola. The order was issued yesterday by Judge Richard Posner in US District Court in Northern Illinois, as part of a patent lawsuit Apple filed in 2010 against Motorola, which is now on the verge of being acquired by Google.

In documents filed with the court last week, Apple argued that information regarding Google's development of Android functionality used in Motorola products is "highly relevant" to the pending lawsuit because two of the patents Apple is asserting "are directed to core features of the Android operating system." The patents in question include #5,566,377, which was filed by Apple in 1994, describing a "method and apparatus for distributing events in an operating system." The other patent, #5,519,867, was filed in 1993 by Taligent, a now-defunct Apple project, and describes an object-oriented multitasking system.

"Apple has alleged that to remove or design around the claimed features would involve a substantial overhaul of the Android operating system, which would likely cost Motorola tens (if not hundreds) of millions of dollars to implement," Apple's filing states. The amount of money Motorola would have had to pay to design around these features, and the amount of money Google "paid to acquire and develop the Android system" is relevant to the amount of damages Apple should be entitled to if it wins this case, Apple argued.

Motorola argued last week that Motorola and Google are still separate entities until the pending merger closes, and thus Motorola "cannot force Google to produce documents or witnesses over Google's objections." Still, Motorola noted that "Google is in the process of producing documents and witnesses and depositions of Google employees have begun and will continue throughout the next weeks."

Posner's brief order states that "Apple's motion of March 2 to compel Motorola and Google to provide discovery concerning Google's acquisition of Android, Inc., Google's development of the Android OS, and Google's acquisition of Motorola is granted." The judge also granted a Motorola motion to strike "expert reports" Apple submitted related to FRAND patent licensing issues.

Because Motorola counter-sued Apple, there will be two trials, which are scheduled to be heard back to back starting June 11, Bloomberg notes. Google told Ars this morning that it won't comment "beyond what we've said in court papers."

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Steve Jobs Patents

Steve Jobs stepped down as CEO of Apple yesterday, and one of the reasons we actually care is because he had a hand in so many major products that we use every day. Shan Carter and Alan McLean, for The New York Times, provide a breakdown of all 313 Apple patents that include Jobs in the group of inventors.

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Click here to read Nintendo Seeks to Patent the Massively <em>Single</em>player Online Game

Back in 2010, Nintendo filed a patent application for something called a "massively single-playing online game," something whose interactions don't take place in real time and what sounds a little Animal Crossing-ish (above). More »

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