A patent lawsuit launched against four mobile phone manufacturers threatens to halt sales of Bluetooth devices, just after user numbers passed the billion mark.
The Washington Research Foundation (WRF), a not-for-profit organisation that helps funds research and helps universities commercialise technologies, has filed a lawsuit in the US courts against Nokia Samsung Electronics, Panasonic and Matsushita Electrical Industrial.
The lawsuit filed on 21 December in the District Court for the Western district of Washington claims the four manufacturers are making and selling Bluetooth products that infringe on at least one patent.
The legal action comes as a surprise to some members of the Bluetooth special interest group (SIG) which was created to control and protect the technology behind the standard.
More than 6,000 member companies belonging to the Bluetooth SIG have agreed to license their relevant patents to other members without cost, said Bluetooth SIG marketing director Anders Edlund.
The group also has carried out legal investigations to ensure that companies can build Bluetooth products without infringing on patents. "It seems to have worked so far so this [lawsuit] was kind of a surprise," he said.
The WRF claims that at least one of its patents relating to radio frequency receivers is used in the Bluetooth standard.
The patent was filed in August 2003 and granted on 3 October last year. The first version of the Bluetooth specification was approved in 1998 and several updates have passed since.
The WRF said that although one mobile phone chip maker, Broadcom, licensed its patents, the chip maker that supplies Nokia and the other defendants – UK-based CSR – did not.
The lawsuit asks the court to forbid the companies from importing or selling the relevant Bluetooth products in the US and also asks for damages for historical infringement.
The Bluetooth SIG had not yet had the chance to take a close look at the lawsuit to determine whether it thinks the claims are valid, Edlund said. "Obviously any legal issue with the technology is a concern to us," he added.
Stefan Svedberg, a Bluetooth SIG board member and an executive at mobile phone firm Ericsson, said lawsuits launched by companies that claimed they had technology essential to existing standards were not uncommon. "The set up of the SIG is something that would minimise this risk but it's not a surprise that there might be some parties like this out there," he said.