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Patent Wars Could Dull Tech's Cutting Edge

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Some call it an international patent arms race: Tech companies like Apple, Samsung, Nokia and Google are launching lawsuits over competing patent claims related to smartphones and tablets.

As NPR's Laura Sydell tells Morning Edition co-host Renee Montagne, companies are mounting takeovers aimed at gaining control of thousands of patents.

Google recently spent $12.5 billion to buy Motorola Mobility, a cellphone manufacturer with more than 17,000 patents. And as Sydell has previously reported, "patent trolls" are on the lookout for potential infringements and the payday that a lawsuit might bring.

But those clashes don't affect only the tech giants. The patent war may have some collateral damage, Sydell says.

"It does affect more than just these big companies," she says. "So you, as a consumer, first off, may pay more. Secondly, it may slow down innovation. There are a variety of ways in which this is also being used to stop the next cool thing from happening. Because you can just try and sue not only a big company — but maybe a small company that's coming in to compete in your market with some new, cool idea."

The patent wars aren't likely to end anytime soon, Sydell says. Google finally entered the fray by buying Motorola Mobility, and other companies are looking at potential purchases that might bring them protection from patent prospectors.

"You may see some people try to bid on Kodak, which has a huge, valuable patent portfolio," Sydell says. "Some say that Kodak's patent portfolio is even more valuable than Kodak itself."

And as a Reuters graphic that charts mobile patent lawsuits neatly shows, Kodak is suing Apple over patent infringement.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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