Patent troll sues Apple, Google and everyone else, but BT denies involvement

Oh look, it’s another mobile-related patent lawsuit. This time the plaintiff is an obscure Delaware-registered limited liability company called Steelhead, and the patent covers ‘mobile radio handover initiation determination’ – in other words, choosing which cellular base station has the best signal as the handset moves from one place to another.

And the defendants? Everyone, really: Apple, Google(s goog), Motorola, RIM(s rim), HTC(s htcxf), Sony(s sne), LG, NEC Casio, Pantech, Kyocera, ZTE, Sprint(s s), AT&T(s t), Verizon(s vz), T-Mobile(s dt) and MetroPCS(s pcs). All of them have committed the mortal sin of allowing their mobile phones to function as mobile phones. So far, so trollish. But the interesting thing about this particular suit is the origin of the suit – or, more precisely, the reporting around that origin.

U.S. Patent No. 5,491,834 comes from BT, or British Telecom as it was once known. Filed in 1993 and granted in 1996, the patent is still listed by the USPTO as belonging to BT. In its court filings (the Motorola/Google example is here), Steelhead notes that it “owns all rights of recovery under the ‘834 Patent, including the exclusive right to recover for past infringement”.

Yet there have still been several reports of this being a case of BT “aggressively monetizing” its patent portfolio. That’s not entirely without foundation – BT has sued Google over alleged patent infringement in Android – but it seems a bit unfair to go blaming the company this time.

Indeed, BT has a pretty firm line on what’s going on here, if you ask them:

“BT sold all of its rights to the patents last year. We have no involvement in Steelhead Licensing LLC’s litigation activity.”

And, just to drive it home, a BT spokesperson also told me that “BT doesn’t share in Steelhead’s licensing income”.

So, will Steelhead’s action succeed? The patent’s origins are certainly as respectable as any software patent can be (i.e. not very much, at least in my opinion), but what it describes is very common. It’s rather tricky to have a mobile phone work to an adequate standard if it can’t choose which cell to connect to. This is not something you can easily work around.