Can Sprint’s patent lawyers force competitors to pay up for VoIP?
Sprint has been filing patent lawsuits over VoIP for more than a decade now, and the company may have just scored its biggest payout yet. On Friday, a jury in Sprint’s home district of Kansas City said that Time Warner Cable, now part of Charter Communications, must pay $139.8 million (Verdict Form) for infringing several patents related to VoIP technology. The jury found that TWC’s infringement was willful, which means that the judge could increase the damage award up to three times its value.
“We are disappointed with the outcome and are considering our options,” a Charter spokesperson told Bloomberg News, which first reported the verdict. A Sprint spokesperson said the company was pleased with the verdict, which represented its “full damage demand.”
The VoIP space has seen more than its share of patent lawsuits. Sprint pounded an $80 million patent settlement out of Vonage following a 2007 jury verdict. In 2008, Sprint sued several smaller VoIP providers, compelling companies like Big River Telephone Co., based in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, to pay for a license to Sprint’s patents.
The case against Comcast is scheduled to begin next week, and will be overseen by the same Kansas City-based federal judge that ran the trial against TWC.
Comcast didn’t sit around and wait for its turn at trial—the cable giant filed a countersuit against Sprint. That countersuit paid off, when a jury ordered Sprint to pay $7.5 million to Comcast in 2014. An appeals court affirmed (PDF) that verdict in January.
The Cox case was transferred to Delaware, where Cox succeeded in having Sprint’s patents thrown out. However, the judge’s decision was overruled on appeal last year, so Sprint’s litigation against Cox is ongoing.
Sprint’s lawsuit against Cable One was stayed in 2015. The current status of the case isn’t clear from available court records.
While Sprint may see VoIP patent licensing and lawsuits as a profit center, it isn’t clear that the company has any particularly special role in the history of VoIP, which was moved ahead by many companies at around the same time. The multiple patent lawsuits against Vonage can be seen as a kind of loser’s lament, with incumbent phone companies seeking to hinder Vonage, the first company to really be successful with the marketing and service ends of VoIP.
The basic concept of VoIP is simply digitizing voice data for more efficient communications, and people have been looking for ways to do that using Internet Protocol for more than a half-century. The first digital voice packets were sent over ARPAnet in 1973. The first widely used software application for VoIP was Speak Freely, published as public domain software in 1991 by Autodesk founder John Walker. VoIP became a big market only when the infrastructure that supports it developed—namely, widespread broadband Internet.