“Our technology is used in every mobile phone,” reads a leaderboard-style ad on the home page of InterDigital, a wireless technology company that holds some 8,800 critical patents. An independent assessment last April of the relative value of communications companies’ patent portfolios by equity market analysis firm Ocean Tomo LLC rated the key 4G and 3G patents held by InterDigital (of which there are about 20) as about 4% more valuable, and 6% more relevant to significant communications platforms, than Nortel’s 20 key patents.
Financial analysts last week had perceived an upcoming InterDigital patent auction as a key opportunity for Google to pull itself back to par after having lost both its bids for the Nortel and Novell portfolios. But that was before last Monday’s announcement of Google’s intent to acquire Motorola Mobility (MMI).
Nearly all bets were on Google to be the prime bidder for this huge intellectual property prize package, which was to have taken place as soon as this week. But now that the InterDigital auction has been postponed until sometime after Labor Day, as Reuters reported this morning, there’s significant speculation that Google’s move this week may actually have opened the door for Apple to make a killing next month.
At issue here is standards and who will end up controlling them. It’s a common perception that the proliferation of standards in any industry, including communications, enables participants in the industry to develop their technology in accepted ways. Sometimes “standards” and “openness” are viewed symmetrically, if not synonymously.
But in one of the most well-phrased analyses of this or any intellectual property situation, last June, Seeking Alpha contributor Ben Strubel encapsulated in one short paragraph the truth that many contributors to presumably open standards are just now realizing, with InterDigital as the subject of his illustration:
InterDigital is not in a proprietary technology business. That means that InterDigital designs technology that conforms to existing communications standards. This is very important. It means that other companies are essentially forced to license InterDigital’s patents.
Or to put it more bluntly if less eloquently, he who holds the standards sets the fees. According to another Reuters report yesterday, at least half of all pertinent 3G technology licenses are payable to InterDigital, with Apple being one of those shelling out the fees. Google had reportedly already expressed interest in the InterDigital portfolio in prior months, but the reason for the auction’s delay, according to Reuters, is to give prospective bidders more time to do due diligence research on the portfolio’s value, particularly in the wake of the Motorola bid. This suggests that bidders other than Google are interested in the defensive value of the InterDigital portfolio. Reuters’ sources speculate the leading interested parties are Apple and Qualcomm.
Licensing is the key revenue stream for the telecommunications industry, and the only way for a company to move that stream in its own direction is to be owed more in license fees than it owes others. Ocean Tomo believes the InterDigital portfolio to be about 17% more valuable, and 15% more relevant, than the MMI portfolio that Google may acquire in its $12.5 billion bid. If that’s accurate, and the Google/MMI deal is consummated, then conceivably Google may end up owing more to Apple or Qualcomm than it would be owed – making its entire entry into the manufacturing business something of a wash.