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Originally published Wednesday, January 3, 2007 at 12:00 AM

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Patent suit filed against cellphone makers over Bluetooth

Research conducted by a University of Washington undergraduate more than a decade ago has become the subject of a lawsuit filed against...

Seattle Times technology reporter

Research conducted by a University of Washington undergraduate more than a decade ago has become the subject of a lawsuit filed against some of the largest cellphone manufacturers in the world.

The suit claims that consumer electronics giant Matsushita and its Panasonic unit, as well as Samsung and Nokia, are infringing on four patents sold under the "Bluetooth" name.

Washington Research Foundation (WRF), which assists Washington universities with commercializing technology, filed the suit Dec. 21 in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington.

Bluetooth technology is used in wireless headsets, or as a means of exchanging data between mobile phones, PCs and other devices without using cables. A blinking blue light is the product's signature. As of November, one billion Bluetooth devices had been shipped, according to the Bluetooth Special Interest Group (SIG), a trade association.

WRF is asking for a court order barring the sale of products that use the patented technology and for monetary damages to be determined by a jury.

The defendants in the case did not reply to requests seeking comment.

The patents trace back to Ed Suominen, a student who was studying radio design at the University of Washington before receiving a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering in 1995.

"That's what's unusual about it," said John Reagh, WRF's manager of business development and legal affairs. "We manage a number of patents for the university, and I can't think of another one where the inventor wasn't a Ph.D."

Suominen, who now lives in Eastern Washington and is a technical adviser in the case, gave the rights to the patents to the UW, which, in turn, exclusively licensed the patents to the foundation to manage.

Reagh said the foundation has been keeping a close eye on the patents, and when it became apparent that Bluetooth was one of the obvious applications for it, it started to study the industry's players.

He said a number of the Bluetooth chipset manufacturers appeared to be infringing on the patent. One company, Irvine, Calif.-based Broadcom, agreed to license the technology. Another company CSR of Cambridge, United Kingdom, did not, Reagh said.

Matsushita, Samsung and Nokia are some of CSR's largest customers, said WRF attorney Steven Lisa. Instead of suing CSR, he said the organization decided to act against the handset makers because the chipset manufacturer may not know which chips are headed to the United States, where the patent is enforceable, but the device-maker would.

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Bluetooth is a standard developed by a number of companies in the mobile industry and overseen by the Bellevue-based Bluetooth SIG. There are many patents surrounding the technology; the ones held by WRF represent only four.

"You can find a way to do it [use Bluetooth] that doesn't infringe on the patents, or you can buy it from Broadcom. That's why WRF is not going to sit back and let it go without it being addressed," Lisa said.

If WRF is awarded damages, the money will go to the University of Washington and a portion will go to Suominen, Reagh said.

Tricia Duryee: 206-464-3283 or tduryee@seattletimes.com

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