Shweta Mohandas


Wakanda year is Facebook having?

*Black Panther spoilers ahead*

Now I’m not much of a moviegoer, but boy did I enjoy Black Panther! I especially loved the twist in the second half where T’challa rules Wakanda with the belief he the uncontested heir, only to be ousted by long-lost cousin Erik Killmonger. A similar saga seems to be taking place in US courts where Blackberry has claimed that a number of Facebook’s messaging features have been infringing Blackberry’s patents. Be it in Black Panther, or BlackBerry, one common question sprang into my head: “Why did they wait so long?!”

Blackberry’s 117-page complaint in the California District Court, alleging that Facebook and its subsidiaries, Whatsapp and Instagram, have been infringing seven of Blackberry’s patents. BlackBerry claimed that these patents were designed for BlackBerry’s instant messaging app: BBM. These patents relate to some of the most basic instant messaging features such as an indication of unread messages, the display of multiple incoming messages in an inbox, the feature that lets you mute those family Whatsapp groups, and the feature that lets others tag you in embarrassing photos of last night’s party, all features, that an average smartphone user would consider as fundamental as the heart emoji.

These patents are essential to Facebook’s functioning, and a mandate to stop using the technology related to the patents might be devastating, not just to Facebook but to all of us. How else will we be able to selectively avoid talking to a person? BlackBerry also stated in their complaint that Facebook and its subsidiaries were ‘latecomers to the instant messaging world’ and that they used BlackBerry’s patents, by making certain enhancements. I did a google patent search and found that Facebook has a number of patents relating to similar features, from ‘Managing forwarded electronic messages’ to ‘Identifying and using identities deemed to be known to a user’. To my non-technical eye and brain, these look like similar patents, but with more modifications. BlackBerry also stated that while they were facing the downsides Facebook was reaping in “undeserved windfalls”.

This is not the first time that technology giants, well into their sunset have caught young ones by the ears. In 2015, Ericsson filed lawsuits against Apple in European courts, on the grounds that Apple was infringing Ericsson’s patents. These patents, relating to LTE technologies, were essential to the working of Apples’ phones and tablets (imagine not being able to use mobile internet). The saga ended with Apple signing Ericsson’s Global Patent Licensing agreement (GPLA) and deciding to pay a huge amount of royalties. This was similar to Ericsson’s tussle with Samsung the previous year on the grounds that Samsung had infringed patents concerning touch screen functions and network efficiency. Samsung had to pay 650 million dollars as well as several years of royalty as a part of the settlement. Ericsson has now become infamous for suing technology and mobile companies over patent infringement. Between 2013 and 2015, Ericsson also sued a number of Indian and Chinese mobile phone companies stating that they were infringing Ericsson’s patents, mostly relating to 3G and AMR technologies. These disputes arose when these companies failed to agree on the terms of Ericsson’s GPLA. The fates of some of these cases are yet undecided, while some others have seen the court granting injunctions and terms of interim royalty. Some disputes have also been settled for undisclosed sums of money.

These cases show a common pattern a sort of arm-twisting by the older technology companies. When sales are low and the company is unable to innovate, they dig into their files of patents and voila! Here is the goose that lays golden eggs. Another thing that can be seen is that these patents were not filed recently, hence these companies have to act fast so as to reap as much as they can before the expiry of the twenty-year patent term. If we look at the patents in dispute in the Blackberry case, the patents have been granted as early as 2001, making it certain that BlackBerry has only a few years left to reap benefits before the patents go to public domain.

Hence, for BlackBerry time is money.

Now, as Killmonger has brought the claim to the throne, T’challa has decided to fight. My bet is on team T’challa.

During the week that took me to write this post, Facebook has been in the eye of a greater storm. With what is happening at Facebook I guess this might not even be the least of their concerns now.

P.S. I thank Pranav M Bidare for the post idea and proof reading.

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