Dozens of exhibitors at Europe's largest gadget confab were in for a surprise this week: Suspecting patent violations, German authorities raided 51 booths, carting off cell phones, navigation devices, and other gear that allegedly infringe on patents.
According to an Associated Press report Thursday, more than 180 police and customs officials took part in the bust, which affected 51 exhibitors at CeBit in Hannover, Germany. Of the accused, 24 were from China, 15 were from Taiwan or Hong Kong, nine were from Germany, and the others came from Poland, the Netherlands, and Korea.
The police didn't name which people or companies were targeted, but they did say the alleged patent violations deal with devices that have MP3, MP4, or digital video broadcast functions; DVD players; and blank CDs and DVDs. They managed to fill 68 boxes with gadgets, documents, and advertising material and took down the identities of nine people, most of whom were reportedly cooperative.
The raid was a response to a rising number of "criminal complaints by the holders of patent rights in the run-up to CeBit," and the patent holders had warned the accused companies in "good time" about their lack of licenses, police said, according to the AP.
When word of the raids first trickled out Wednesday, rumors started flying that an iPhone "clone" made by the Chinese electronics company Meizu was one of the targets. But, as it turns out, a portable MP3 player that Meizu makes, not the Mini One smartphone, was the subject of the investigations, according to reporters on the scene.
Could we expect to see something similar go down in the middle of next year's sprawling Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas? (This is assuming--only for the sake of argument--that any patent infringements might occur.)
Short answer: probably not.
U.S. officials regularly conduct raids in which they seize certain goods because of intellectual property violations--pirated Microsoft software, for instance, or mod chips that allow video game consoles to play pirated games. But the key difference is that those exercises deal primarily with copyright or trademark violations. There's no equivalent seizure authority under U.S. patent law.
"Because of the difficulty in determining issues of patent infringement, we don't have criminal prosecutions (or raids or seizures) for patented inventions (unlike trademark counterfeiting and copyright piracy which are easier to determine)," a United States Patent and Trademark Office spokeswoman told CNET News.com in e-mail.
Because it's generally impossible to look at a product and tell whether it's infringing on a patent, famously unsexy American patent lawsuits are generally resolved through complex court proceedings that may lead to fines against the infringer and injunctions barring use of the contested invention.
Things are a bit different when U.S. patent violations by international firms are concerned, but they're still not quite the same as what reportedly transpired in Germany this week.
Federal law gives U.S. customs agents the power to seize imports of goods that have been found to infringe on U.S. patents.
"You can get an order from the International Trade Commission in the United States barring any importation of a product that infringes a U.S. patent," said Gilbert Kaplan, a partner with the Washington office of King & Spalding who specializes in international trade and intellectual property law.
Sometimes, a U.S. patent holder who has won an infringement suit can also seek a temporary restraining order from a U.S. district court that similarly bars imports of infringing products. Unlike in the Germany situation, however, those cases aren't in the investigatory stage: a decision has already been reached about whether a certain patent has been infringed.
Seizures ordered by the ITC typically occur at the border, when packages and containers are inspected by customs officials. Kaplan said he wasn't aware of any cases where customs agents had blustered into a trade show, but "they do have that right," he said. "So (those ITC orders) theoretically could apply to these kind of infringing imports if they happen to slip through at a trade show."
Practically speaking, that may be hard to pull off because "you'd have to have a lot of warning that shipments are coming in," said Fabio Marino, a patent partner in Orrick's Silicon Valley office.
"I'm aware of other situations where that has happened in Europe, but I've never heard of it happening in the U.S.," he said of the CeBit raid. "There is no criminal provision under the U.S. patent laws."