Companies sued over Bluetooth technology

Three major electronics makers have been accused of violating patented work from the University of Washington with their use of the Bluetooth wireless technology found in millions of computers, cell phones, and headsets.

Japan’s Matsushita Electric Industrial Co., South Korea’s Samsung Electronics Co., and Finland’s Nokia Corp. were accused of illegally incorporating unlicensed Bluetooth chip sets in a variety of products. The federal lawsuit seeks unspecified damages and an injunction barring the companies from selling those products.

Matsushita, known globally for its Panasonic brand products, and Samsung produce a wide range of electronics products, while Nokia is the world’s largest manufacturer of cellular telephones. Bluetooth, whose products feature a distinctive, blinking blue light, enables wireless exchanges of data between cell phones, computers, headsets, and other devices.

The lawsuit was filed in December in U.S. District Court in Seattle by the Washington Research Foundation, a nonprofit group that seeks commercial uses and enforces patents for technology developed at Washington’s universities and nonprofit research institutions. Analysts say consumers likely won’t be affected by the legal wrangling.

Defendants would be quick to settle if it appeared the case was immediately threatening their product lines, said Rob Enderle, principal analyst with the Enderle Group.

But Enderle said Broadcom Corp. of Irvine, Calif., the only chip manufacturer that has licensed the technology, stood to profit mightily until the dispute is resolved.

“This is like a blazing advertisement for Broadcom,” he said. “As long as this is in play, they can say, ‘If you want to do Bluetooth products without problems, we’re the only guys you can license it from.’ This is a huge potential competitive advantage.”

According to the lawsuit, Bluetooth-based computers, cell phones, and headsets made by the companies have violated four patents for research done in the mid-1990s by Edwin Suominen when he was a student at the University of Washington. All four patents are now licensed by the Washington Research Foundation.

The foundation’s lead counsel on the case, Steven Lisa, said the court filing followed two years of informal attempts to resolve the issue with the major players in the industry.

“They’ve had notice of the patent, they’ve had an opportunity to discuss the matter with us, and we haven’t been able to resolve it,” Lisa said. “And nobody has presented, for us to consider, a non-infringement or invalidity argument.”

Most of any damages received would go to the university and to Suominen, who is serving as a technical adviser in the case, said John D. Reagh, the foundation’s manager of business development and legal affairs. The rest would go to the foundation.

The three manufacturers use chip sets made by CSR PLC of Cambridge, England, which has not licensed the disputed technology. CSR said in a filing with the London Stock Exchange that the suit is without merit and that the company will “vigorously” defend its products.

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