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Tech giants to talk patent reform at the U.N.

The U.N.'s International Telecommunication Union is hosting a discussion of patent policy with Apple, Google, Microsoft and other tech titans at its Geneva headquarters.

The U.N.'s International Telecommunication Union is hosting a roundtable to discuss patent litigation.
International Telecommunication Union
Apple, Google, Microsoft and other tech giants are meeting in Switzerland today to discuss patent litigation reform, seeking to find ways to protect their intellectual property without hurting innovation.

The roundtable, hosted by the U.N.'s International Telecommunication Union in its Geneva headquarters, will cover topics such as "potential improvements to existing policy frameworks, entitlement to injunctive reliefs, and definitions of what constitutes a royalty base."

The group hopes to find out how standard essential patents can be enforced without hindering competition and how to make sure licenses can be offered at reasonable terms.

"We are seeing an unwelcome trend in today's marketplace to use standards-essential patents to block markets," Hamadoun Touré, secretary-general of the ITU said. "There needs to be an urgent review of this situation: Patents are meant to encourage innovation, not stifle it."

The participants will include standards organizations, key industry players, and government officials. According to a report from the BBC, some companies attending along with Apple and Microsoft are Samsung, Google, Research in Motion, Intel, Qualcomm, Philips, Huawei, Sony, and Hewlett-Packard.

Patent-related litigation has been rampant in the technology sector, particularly in the fast-growing smartphone and tablet markets. Apple and many other companies, including Samsung, have been suing each other over infringement, and Apple in August won its case against Samsung. Other companies have been making acquisitions -- like Google's purchase of Motorola Mobility -- to help build their patent arsenals.

Google's chief legal officer, David Drummond, told the Wall Street Journal yesterday that "the company is walking a fine line as it seeks reforms in the U.S. patent system" as it tries to reduce lawsuits related to mobile devices. He wants to make it more difficult to get U.S. patents on software.

Meanwhile, many companies submitted statements to the ITU ahead of the roundtable.

Here's what Microsoft had to say:

Like other leading high-tech firms, Microsoft regularly contributes to the development of industry standards. Industry standards are vitally important to the development of the Internet and to interoperability among mobile devices and other computers. The international standards system works well because firms that contribute to standards promise to make their essential patents available to others on fair, reasonable and nondiscriminatory terms. Consumers and the entire industry will suffer if, in disregard of this promise, firms seek to block others from shipping products on the basis of such standard essential patents.
The U.S. Justice Department, meanwhile, has some suggestions of its own for patent policy improvements.

Renata Hesse, deputy assistant attorney general in the antitrust division of the DOJ, detailed some policies standards bodies could implement that the DOJ believes "would promote competition among implementers of the standard, potentially benefiting consumers around the world."

Some of these include -- according to a copy of the remarks sent to CNET -- making it clear that licensing commitments made to the standards body are intended to bind both the current patent holder and future purchasers of the patents.

And the bodies should establish procedures that seek to identify, in advance, proposed technology that involves patents that the patent holder hasn't agreed to license on fair, reasonable, and non-discriminatory (FRAND) terms and consciously determine whether the technology should be included in the standard.

"Standards bodies whose members choose to take steps such as these will help the market for the standardized product to work efficiently by lowering costs, increasing transparency and reducing uncertainty -- all of which benefit innovation and competition," Hesse said.

Updated at 8:30 a.m. PT with comments from the DOJ.