Apple to Pay $24 Million for Infringing on Ancient Pager Patents

Apple to Pay $24 Million for Infringing on Ancient Pager Patents
Image credit: Andy | Flickr

A federal jury has ruled that Apple must pay $23.6 million to Mobile Telecommunications Technologies (MTel) for infringing on five of its patents, which cover pager technology.

Unsurprisingly, the patents were granted a while ago -- all were filed sometime between 1992 and 1997, the Guardian reports, and a few have already expired. (Interestingly, patent law allows for the collection of back-payments, so MTel can still make money off them).

MTel sued Apple last year, claiming that services on the iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch (particularly iMessage, emojis and calendar invitations) infringed on a number of its patents that cover pager technology.

Related: Looks Like Big Tech Is Winning the Battle With Patent Trolls

Apple argued that the patents in question were invalid when they were issued, but even if the jury disagreed with that assessment, the infringement fee should be a maximum of $1 million, reports Ars Technica. The tech giant's case mirrored criticisms often thrown a technology patents granted in the '90s:  They're overly broad and fuzzily worded (the United States Patent and Trademark office awarded a patent covering the "interactive web," which…means what, exactly?)

MTel's lawyers countered that the company was a pioneer in wireless messaging in the 1990s with its development of the SkyTel two-way paging system, and as such its patents deserve recognition. "The guys working back then at SkyTel were way ahead of their time,” Andrew Fitton, CEO of United Wireless (which controls MTel) told Bloomberg. "This is vindication for all their work." MTel was seeking $237 million, or $1 per infringing device sold, but the company's lawyers applauded the verdict nonetheless.

“Apple makes a great product and they deserve a lot of the credit they get,” Daniel Scardino, one of MTel's lawyers, told Re/code. “But they should also give credit to those who are due credit for advancing the state of technology that came before them. That’s what this trial is all about.”

Apple has been taken to court a lot lately. Last month, the tech giant won another infringement case involving pager patents; in that instance, Apple was able to depict the plaintiff, GPNE, as a patent troll. 

Related: A Rant, and Some Suggestions What to Do, About Patent Trolls

As the Guardian notes, MTel isn't technically a patent troll -- the colloquial term for non-practicing entities, or companies that collect patents not in order to make products or services, but instead solely to collect licensing fees from accused infringers – because it actually still uses its patented technology to operate a pager system for firefighters and paramedics.

However, that doesn't mean it isn't acting like one – according to Ars Technica, since 2012, MTel has sued Amazon, AT&T, Blackberry, Clearwire, Leap Wireless, LG Electronics, Sprint Nextel, HTC,  ZTE, T-Mobile, and United Parcel Service. Most suites were filed in the Eastern District of Texas, a district renowned for favoring patentees. (Out of the more than 6,000 patent suits filed in United States federal courts last year nearly 25 percent were filed in the Eastern District of Texas, according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation).

Next up in line for the courthouse: Samsung. MTel is suing the company for infringing the same pager patents.

Related: Tesla's New Patent Strategy Makes Sense