TomTom counter-sues: Microsoft 'infringing four patents'

According to ComputerWorld, TomTom, a company that makes GPS (Global Positioning System) products, is suing Microsoft for patent infringement in what appears to be a retaliatory strike against Microsoft's own patent lawsuit, launched a few weeks ago and detailed here, against TomTom.

The Microsoft product in question? Streets and Trips, software for PCs that can receive and present data from a GPS receiver (in the form, say, of a USB fob). TomTom reportedly had repeatedly notified Microsoft of how the Redmond company was infringing TomTom's patents, but Microsoft had simply been neglecting to respond acceptably to TomTom's complaints.

Then, about a month ago, Microsoft sued TomTom for allegedly violating eight of its patents (a lawsuit that seemed more aimed at Linux than TomTom).

TomTom is seeking in its current lawsuit "triple damages for willful infringement" on Microsoft's part because Microsoft had been notified of TomTom's claims and had not come forward with acceptable licensing terms. But the lawsuit can also be viewed as a "counter-strike" in light of Microsoft's recent "attack" against TomTom.

This is yet another case of the patent "cold wars" going "hot".

In general terms patents of any kind can be valuable--owning a patent means that you can produce things to sell that no one else can legally produce or that you can license the rights to someone else who can then make commercial use of it. Things, however, are so complex these days, and it is not unusual for a company to design a product which infringes someone else's patent or patents. It is often not possible even to know if you have infringed someone else's patent, or at least it is not usually financially feasible to investigate the matter.

Patents, especially in the tech industries, serve these days partly as cash-generators (whether through direct use or licensing) or as "weapons" to use against competitors. Companies such as IBM, Microsoft, Toshiba, and Samsung, among others, file massive numbers of patent applications every year to increase their "arsenal" of patents--partly, again, to use to make money and partly to use as "weapons" in case other companies sue them.

Imagine that you and I are both big companies. Chances are, as we both develop new products, we'll each be infringing certain patents of the other, whether we mean to or not. Under normal conditions, if you notice I'm infringing a patent of yours, you would contact me and we'd work out a licensing deal (or perhaps a larger cross-licensing deal if each of us has patents the other wants access to). However, if I don't reply to your claims, you can sue me. This can be risky for you as well because I could then sue you for patent infringement, and what had been a "cold war" has now gone "hot".

In the present case, Microsoft raised the bar by filing suit against TomTom, and now that TomTom has counter-sued, their patent "cold war" has gone "hot".

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