A Game of Patents: Acquire or Die

If Mike Myers' Dr. Evil ever returns in another Austin Powers movie, I know how he'd attempt to gain control of the world. He would buy up as many wireless phone patents as possible.

Ridiculous? Maybe not.

Because it just happens to be what Dr. Larry "Don't Be Evil" Page, the CEO of Google (NAS: GOOG) , is trying to do. And he's not shy about it. Google's deal to purchase Motorola Mobility (NYS: MMI) for the premium price of $12.5 billion was a defiant counterstrike to the company's recent failed patent bid.

Earlier this summer, Google tried to buy the Nortel Networks' portfolio of 6,000 patents. But a consortium, which included Apple (NAS: AAPL) , Microsoft, and Research In Motion (NAS: RIMM) , took that pile of intellectual property for $4.5 billion, five times Google's original bid. Google ended the bid with a cheeky bid just over $3.14 billion; yes, Google ended its bidding at pi.

To survive, or not to survive...
This desire for patent supremacy isn't just a "he who dies with the most patents wins" ego trip. It could mean life or something much less for tech companies.

There could be many thousands of patent claims on something like a smartphone, and the potential hail of litigation falling on smartphone producers could stifle technical innovation. The more patents a company owns, the greater the odds of avoiding lawsuits. Those not financially able to fight or settle those suits are left helpless.

So Google, the scorned Nortel suitor, saw Motorola's file cabinet full of some 17,000 patents as a powerful draw. Some might think that those patents embody the steak in Google's feast, and that Motorola's hardware business is merely the creamed spinach.

Companies cleaning out their attics
Eastman Kodak
(NYS: EK) has claimed that Apple and Research In Motion have infringed upon its patents, and it is trying to collect $1 billion in usage fees from them. But Kodak is widely considered to be heading for default as a stand-alone business, and its digital imaging patents could be worth up to $3 billion. That's about four times the company's current market value. Kodak, then, is another likely patent acquisition target.

Telecommunications company InterDigital (NAS: IDCC) also has a bull's-eye on its back as Apple, Qualcomm (NAS: QCOM) , and Nokia lust after its patent trove. The auction for InterDigital is expected to occur after Labor Day. If Google doesn't enter the bidding -- as its purchase of Motorola might foreshadow -- then that could dampen InterDigital's pricing potential.

Digging a defensive patent moat
Companies like Google and Apple have a lot of cash on hand. There are three things they could do with that money -- besides letting it earn 0.12% at one-year Treasury bond rates:

  1. Pay dividends -- sigh, if only.
  2. Buy back shares.
  3. Acquire other companies (for diversification and/or to acquire intellectual properties).

Given the immediacy of the patent threats these companies face, door number three (for the intellectual properties) seems like the safest move.

There will be many interesting developments in the technical patent realm in the coming months. To make it easier to keep track of what's going on with the above companies, put them on your Watchlist byclicking here.

At the time this article was published Fool contributorDan Radovskyhas no financial position in the mentioned companies.The Motley Fool owns shares of Qualcomm, Research In Motion, Apple, Microsoft, and Google. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Apple, Microsoft, Google, and InterDigital. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended creating a bull call spread position in Apple. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended creating a bull call spread position in Microsoft. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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