The lawsuit that Blackberry filed against Facebook alleging that the social media giant and its subsidiaries WhatsApp and Instagram infringe seven of its patents shows one thing very clearly: the Canadian company is deadly serious about IP monetisation.
Ever since it realised that its best days as a device maker were behind it and turned its attention to the possible value in its patent portfolio, Blackberry has been busy knuckling down to make its patents sweat.
In the last few years it has filed infringement suits against Avaya, BLU and Nokia. It has agreed licensing deals with Cisco and Canon, and sold assets to investment firm Centerbridge Partners and Chinese mobile newcomer Oppo.
But going after Facebook - and its well-known messaging apps - takes Blackberry’s monetisation efforts up a level, with the dispute likely to feature prominently in the business press the longer it goes on.
In its complaint, filed in district court in the Central District of California, the Canadian tech company refers to its messenger technology as having “revolutionised instant messaging by providing users with secure, user-friendly, point-to-point instance messaging on their mobile devices”. With Facebook’s own messenger and WhatsApp dominating the market - the pair each have more than 1 billion monthly active users - if Blackberry’s technology is as revolutionary as it claims it presumably has a very healthy payout in mind. You can see an analysis of the patents in question from Envision IP here.
But looking at the bigger picture of Blackberry’s strategy, a couple of things stand out. For starters, what took it so long?
Given that the company’s best days as a device maker have been behind it for some time, and given that it is sitting on a huge portfolio of assets that touch on mobile and many other sectors, and when you consider its claims that the patents in this suit are foundational to the wildly popular messaging sector, it seems odd that it didn’t go after Facebook or another Silicon Valley giant sooner.
Blackberry may be behind the curve in the monetisation market and have some way to go before it catches up with Ericsson and Nokia, but it’s been playing this game for several years now.
After all it hired Mark Kokes from InterTrust in 2014 to head its licensing efforts and having built a team over the course of his first year he then spent several years putting in place a series of deals. Kokes left Blackberry somewhat abruptly last summer and is now at LA-based biotech business Nantworks.
After the departure of Kokes and others from the licensing team, Blackberry effectively outsourced a big chunk of its monetisation efforts when it announced a patent licensing partnership with Teletry. That’s a new programme operated by the Marconi Group, which is supporting other licensing platforms such as Avanci and Velos and was co-founded by former Ericsson IP chief Kasim Alfalahi. The deal gave Teletry the right to sublicense a broad range of the Canadian business’s patents to a majority of global smartphone manufacturers.
The other thing to consider following the Facebook suit is who might be next? For starters, there are the other giants of the messaging world, including Tencent’s WeChat, Skype and Snapchat.
Then beyond that there’s the wider mobile universe which Blackberry has hardly touched. Might it, for instance, focus its energies on the Android universe? Plus, in a rapidly converging world there are numerous industries where the company’s patented technology is increasingly relevant.
Before he left Blackberry, Kokes spoke to the IAM blog about the universe of licensing opportunities. “Our patents cover multiple technologies - maybe 40 plus,” he told us. “We have depth in areas like smart grids, gambling, manufacturing, mobile communications, radars and tracking, logistics and many more. I have 24 PhD level people constantly mining the portfolio looking at new verticals. They have very diverse backgrounds and know what is going on in a wide range of technologies.”
If Kokes’ is right, Facebook could well be the tip of the iceberg.