For better or worse, intellectual property disputes have become a major part of smartphone history. The number of smartphone-related patents rises every year: in the USA, they made up one-quarter of total patents granted in 2013.

Almost every major player in the field has found themselves in court at some point, and some battles have cost companies hundreds of millions in legal fees and payouts. Samsung and Apple finally put one long-running dispute to rest earlier this year – only to follow up by launching another case almost right away.

As progress marches on, industry juggernauts will keep on knocking heads over who owns the rights to a particular technology, design or idea. We’ve picked out seven leaders in the mobile technology field and examined their roles in the patent wars – as well as zooming in on some of the groundbreaking, innovative and just plain bizarre patents they’ve filed.


Samsung Patents

Number of mobile patents filed (1996-2014):


Samsung is a titan of intellectual property, and the South Korean company is second only to IBM as the holder of the more patents than any company in the world. Last year alone, Samsung received 5,043 patents from the United States Patent and Trademark Office.

Notable patent battle

Apple vs Samsung, 2011

Apple vs Samsung is already the stuff of litigation legend: the three-year clash, which began in 2011, spanned four continents and cost more than a billion dollars. At the root of it was the Galaxy S, a new smartphone by Samsung (an Apple supplier, no less) that appeared to have more than a few features in common with the iPhone, including pinch-to-zoom, shape, icons – even, Apple claimed, the box it came in.

Following a frosty meeting in Seoul, battle lines were drawn. On April 15th, 2011, Apple sued Samsung, alleging in a 38-page federal complaint that it had “slavishly copied” designs used by the iPhone and iPad. A week later, Samsung counter-sued Apple, alleging that the Cupertino-based company had infringed its patents relating to wireless communications and camera phones.

Apple sought a whopping $2.5 billion, and the fight went global, spanning ten countries by October 2011. By July 2012, the two companies were involved in more than 50 lawsuits. In August of that year, a jury found Samsung guilty of wilfully infringing five of Apple’s patents, and it was ordered to pay $1.049 billion in damages – although this amount was later halved. This was by no means the end of Apple vs Samsung…

Innovative patent

Flexible tablet display

Patent application number: US D/696693
Filed: September 2012

Flexible screens are believed to be the next big thing in display technology, and Samsung is determined not to be left behind. This patent gives a tantalising glimpse of a tablet that can be folded up like a book or a notebook, thanks to its flexible display. Expect to see more of this sort of thing in 2015.

Weirdest patent

Widescreen smartphone

Patent application number: US D/428318
Filed: July 2012

Samsung has a staggering number of patents under its belt, but this must be one of the strangest: a smartphone with a 21:9 display, the same aspect ratio used in widescreen TVs. We’re not sure why people would watch widescreen movies on their handset, but Samsung sure seems to think there’s a market there.


Nokia Patents

Number of mobile patents filed (1996-2014):


Nokia is a prolific filer of patents, and is believed to hold nearly a fifth of the standard essential patents for 4G LTE (long-term evolution) technology. In early 2014, the Finnish company settled a months-long intellectual property dispute with HTC, only to immediately forge a patent collaboration agreement with the Taiwanese manufacturer.

Notable patent battle

Nokia vs Apple, 2009

Nokia, whose business had been hurt by the success of the iPhone, filed a lawsuit against Apple in October 2009. The suit accused Apple of infringing on patents including touch interfaces, caller ID, display illumination and 3G and WiFi technology, and demanded royalties on millions of iPhones sold since 2007. Predictably, Apple counter-sued, alleging Nokia had infringed on 13 of its own patents and accusing the Finnish firm of “patent hold-up”.

The dispute rumbled on until June 2011, when the two companies finally settled in an apparent victory for Nokia. Under the agreement, Apple made an undisclosed one-off payment and ongoing royalties to license some of Nokia’s technologies: although the Cupertino-based firm stressed that these did not include “the majority of the innovations that make the iPhone unique”.

The outcome had benefits for both companies: while ostensibly a defeat for Apple, it did mean that competitors building Android-based devices would likely have to hand over money to Nokia on a per-unit basis as well, helping to slow the tide of Android’s commoditisation of smartphone technologies. It just goes to show that in the patent wars, you can win even when you lose.

Innovative patent

Flexible battery

Patent application number: US 13/590724
Filed: August 2013

This ribbon-like battery, which can be formed into a Swiss roll-like shape, represents one of Nokia’s most groundbreaking patents to date. While flexible smartphones are the most obvious application, Nokia notes in the filing that this innovative battery could be used in gaming devices, music players, notebooks and more.

Weirdest patent

Vibrating tattoo

Patent application number: US 13/231697
Filed: September 2011

Nokia takes us all a step closer to a cyberpunk future with this bizarre patent for ferromagnetic tattoos, stamps or sprays that can be applied to the skin and linked with a mobile device. These markings could vibrate to alert users to calls, low battery and appointments – or even serve as a magnetic “fingerprint” to unlock devices.


Apple Patents

Number of mobile patents filed (1996-2014):


Considering its influence on the industry, Apple has a surprisingly slight number of mobile patents. However, history has shown that it’s not afraid to vigorously defend the ones it has – between 2008 and 2010 alone, the company filed more than 350 cases. What’s more, the outcomes of Apple-centric suits often set the bar for the IT industry at large.

Notable patent battle

Apple vs Samsung, 2012

Even while it was still embroiled in the original feud with Samsung, Apple was preparing another lawsuit against the Korean company, this time asserting Samsung’s violation of five Apple patents in many of the Galaxy series of devices. In February 2012 Apple filed a suit seeking $2 billion in damages, and hoped to pave the way for more lawsuits against other Android device-makers.

In May 2014, Samsung was ordered to pay just shy of $120 million to Apple. While this may sound like a lot, the outcome was actually widely considered a big loss for Apple, probably barely covering its legal bills for the case. Despite this, Samsung has appealed the verdict, which it claims was “unsupported by evidence”, and has said it intends to reduce the amount payable all the way to zero.

Apple also sought a ban on all US sales of nine Samsung smartphones, which was denied by District Judge Lucy Koh in August 2014. At the time of writing, Apple has vowed to try again in the appeals court, where Samsung’s own appeal of the first trial’s verdict is currently under consideration.

August 2014 also saw Apple and Samsung agree to drop all their non-US-based litigation – although don’t expect to see the two companies strolling hand in hand any time soon.

Innovative patent

iWatch with wireless charging

Patent application number: US 13/776436
Filed: February 2013

Apple has filed many innovative patents, and this is just one of the new devices in the works at Cupertino: an iWatch-style device that features wireless charging circuitry. The filing states that this gadget will also be compatible with wireless payment systems at retailers via, interestingly, an NFC antenna – a technology Apple has traditionally shunned, despite widespread use in high-end Android devices.

Weirdest patent

Pneumatic virtual keyboard

Patent application number: US 12/617172
Filed: November 2009

Among Apple’s quirkier patent filings is this yet-to-be-realised description of a system that uses air jets to simulate the feeling of pressing keys – theoretically making a tiny keyboard feel like a big one. Another system would see keys pneumatically pulled away from the user when the typing intention is detected, and the two systems could be used in combination – if this design ever sees the light of day.


Microsoft Patents

Number of mobile patents filed (1996-2014):


Microsoft is no stranger to patents (or litigation), and has long claimed that more than 70% of Android smartphones sold in the US are covered by licensing agreements. In June 2014, China’s Ministry of Commerce revealed that the company indeed owns around 200 patent families that are necessary to produce an Android handset.

Notable patent battle

Microsoft vs Motorola, 2010

One of Microsoft’s biggest patent battles in the sphere didn’t involve infringement or even smartphones per se, but rather the amount Motorola Mobility charged to license standard patents that Microsoft needed for devices like the Xbox 360 and desktop PCs. In 2010, Microsoft filed a breach of contract case against Motorola, which had just demanded a 2.25% royalty rate on all Microsoft products that contained Motorola technology.

Following a pattern seen in so many patent cases, Motorola responded by suing Microsoft in Germany over a number of products that employed its standards. It won this case in 2012, but Microsoft eventually won the larger battle when in September 2013 a federal jury found Motorola Mobility guilty of failing to license standard patents at a reasonable rate. A few months earlier, Microsoft had been told to pay Motorola $1.8 million a year for the patents, compared to the $4 billion Motorola wanted.

Microsoft pocketed $14.5 million in damages from the September decision: only half of what it had sought, but the company hailed the victory as one of a “growing list of decisions by regulators and courts telling Google to stop abusing patents”. Google had acquired Motorola Mobility in August 2011.

Innovative patent

Dual-screen smartphone

Patent application number: US 12/639924
Filed: December 2009

Although not yet brought to market (and probably never will), Microsoft deserves credit for patenting this interesting idea. It’s a translucent dual-screen smartphone incorporating a front and back display, which can be separated into two parts, allowing one to be held and watched while the other is talked upon.

Weirdest patent

Brain lateralisation software development process

Patent application number: US 11/565495
Filed: November 2006

At first glance, this patent looks like everyone’s worst fears are confirmed and Microsoft is trying to patent our very thoughts. On closer inspection, it’s an unusually flimsy attempt to patent a software design process that’s loosely based on the human brain, using an intermediary element to communicate between the “arty” and “logical” teams involved. Not as frightening, but still pretty weird.


LG Patents

Number of mobile patents filed (1996-2014):


Long-time Samsung rival LG is no slouch when it comes to patents, boasting that it held 23% of LTE (long-term evolution) patents for 4G technology in 2012 – more than Nokia – and filed even more applications than Samsung in that year. With the next wave of smartphone litigation battles expected to revolve around 4G, there could be interesting times ahead for the Korean firm.

Notable patent battle

LG Display vs Samsung Display, 2012

LG and Samsung have been in competition for half a century, so it’s no surprise that the two would end up in court over intellectual property. Each firm accused the other of stealing LCD and OLED display technology and poaching key engineers, filing two patent infringement suits each against the other. Tempers have been so frayed that even the Korean government has been forced to step in at times.

In September 2013, there seemed to be a cooling-off when the two agreed to drop all display litigation and focus on improving competitiveness instead. However, in June 2014 their settlement negotiations stalled, reportedly because Samsung wants to forge a patent cross-licensing deal, and LG doesn’t until certain patent payments are made.

Korean trade ministers are desperate for LG and Samsung – the world’s number one and number two display panel makers, respectively – to put aside their differences and cooperate to help stem the gains made by Chinese and Taiwanese manufacturers. However, there’s currently no end to the dispute in sight.

Innovative patent

Wrist-mounted stylus

Patent application number: US 13/759802
Filed: February 2013

Just when you think LG’s ahead of curve when it comes to wearable tech, we find this application for what appears to be a slap bracelet straight from the 1990s, which doubles up as a flexible stylus for capacitive screens. It’s a pretty clever idea – it’ll stop you from losing your stylus, for one thing – although we’re not sure if the fashion world is ready for it.

Weirdest patent

Smart wine reader

Patent application number: US 12/647,365
Filed: December 2009

LG doesn’t just do smartphones and big TVs: it’s also a world leader in wine storage technology, or so this patent application suggests. This is a design for a “mobile terminal” that’s equipped with a camera to scan wine labels and fill you in on any important information – presumably so you can then go and impress your dinner guests with your knowledge of the great Burgundies of ‘49.


Patent filing figures were sourced from the Chetan Sharma report (p20, fig 7). Numbers are estimated.

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