4 takeaways from Apple and Qualcomm's big patent fight

"We ... should also be able to date somebody else."

Richard Nieva Former senior reporter
Richard Nieva was a senior reporter for CNET News, focusing on Google and Yahoo. He previously worked for PandoDaily and Fortune Magazine, and his writing has appeared in The New York Times, on CNNMoney.com and on CJR.org.
Richard Nieva
4 min read
Angela Lang/CNET

For the past two weeks, Qualcomm and Apple have battled in a San Diego courtroom over some of the basic technology at the heart of your smartphone. On Friday, a jury said Apple infringed on all three of the patents in question.

The legal battle covers Qualcomm technology the chipmaker says Apple used without permission in some versions of the iPhone. One patent covers how a smartphone connects quickly to the internet once the device is booted up. Another deals with graphics processing and battery life. A third covers apps swapping downloads between the apps processor and the modem.

A jury said Apple must pay Qualcomm the full $31 million it was seeking in damages, or $1.41 per infringing iPhone. That's a paltry sum for Apple -- which briefly became the first $1 trillion company in the US last year -- but the cash figure doesn't tell the whole story.

The skirmish is part of a broader legal battle that dates back two years. The clash between the two tech titans will reach a crescendo next month when they meet back in a San Diego court to fight over patent royalties. That trial is sure to be a media circus.

Before the next round starts, here are four takeaways from the confrontation that just ended.

1. The Arjuna Siva argument

Much of the trial centered around a guy who doesn't work for either company: Arjuna Siva.

Now an engineer at Google, Siva was part of an Apple team that worked to get Qualcomm chips into iPhones in 2010. During that period, Apple argues, Siva made key contributions to the boot-up technology in question.

Apple said Siva should've been named a co-inventor on the patent covering that technology. Because of that, Apple has argued the patent should be deemed invalid for failing to credit all the actual inventors. That's key, because you can't infringe on an invalid patent.

Siva stopped short of taking credit for the patent during his testimony, which was unexpectedly canceled then rescheduled in the span of several days. But he called some elements of the technology "my idea." He also said he hadn't read the actual language of the patent.

Qualcomm made a big deal about that last point. During arguments, the chipmaker's attorneys showed a patent application that inventors sign. The form says all signatories must have read and reviewed the patent application before signing. Since Siva didn't read it, he wouldn't have been able to sign.

Apple dismissed that argument, saying Siva didn't know about the application at the time so why would he have read it?

In the end, the jury struck down the claim that Siva should have been named an inventor.

2. Apple alleged witness tampering. Judge said 'no evidence'

The circumstances around Siva's testimony were the biggest source of drama in an otherwise low-key patent case.

The theatrics started when Apple counsel Juanita Brooks said Siva, a key witness for the iPhone maker, no longer intended to testify. The change of heart came after Siva's new attorney, Matt Warren, advised him against appearing unless a subpoena was issued.

Brooks alleged "witness tampering." She pointed out Warren had previously been a partner at Quinn Emanuel, the firm representing Qualcomm. David Nelson, Qualcomm's lead attorney, said the accusation was "ridiculous" and vigorously denied the claim. Judge Dana Sabraw, who presided over the case, also said there was "no evidence" for the allegation.

Siva ended up testifying, but the two sides continued to feud over the claim until the last day of trial. Earlier this week, Brooks said in a filing, "Apple had good reason to be concerned that steps were being taken to influence Mr. Siva's testimony." Still, Sabraw said the insinuations toward Qualcomm and Quinn Emanuel were "premature."

3. Apple says this isn't about patents at all

This is a patent trial but Apple said that isn't why Qualcomm sued. Rather, Brooks said Qualcomm took the legal action because the chipmaker was angry that Apple started to use Intel chips in iPhones in 2016. Prior to then, Apple and Qualcomm had had an exclusive relationship that dated back to 2011.

To drive the point home, Apple displayed a slide titled "The real motivation for this lawsuit," which contained a timeline of the relationship between the two companies. Brooks said Apple purchased all of its mobile chips from Qualcomm even as the company supplied the entire industry. "We," Brooks said, "should also be able to date somebody else."

In his rebuttal, Nelson denied the claim, saying the lawsuit "doesn't have anything to do with that."

Apple brought on Intel as a second supplier two years ago for some models of the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus. Since then, Intel has replaced Qualcomm in iPhones altogether.

4. The big show is next month

As court cases go, this one isn't the be-all and end-all for either company. The big showdown is next month, when Apple and Qualcomm meet in San Diego to fight over Qualcomm's licenses.

In that case, Apple is arguing Qualcomm should charge the company royalties based on the value of Qualcomm's chips, not the value of the entire iPhone. Apple said it "shouldn't have to pay them for technology breakthroughs they have nothing to do with." Qualcomm says Apple wouldn't have the iPhone without its technology. Billions of dollars are on the line for that courtroom clash.

The recent patent case may pale in comparison, but that doesn't mean it isn't important. For Qualcomm, the clean sweep ruling is a boon to its research-and-development operations, signaling to competitors and partners that it's an innovator in mobile components. It also gives the company good footing going into next month's trial.

For Apple, the case was a warm-up before the main event, giving its defense an opportunity to try out arguments before a jury in a considerably lower-stakes environment.

The next trial is scheduled to begin April 15.