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Sony takes on LG with latest phone patent suit

Two more companies leapt on the smartphone lawsuit merry-go-round yesterday as Sony filed a complaint seeking to block LG Electronics from shipping phones to the US.

The patent infringement filing is the latest case in a frenetic 18 months of legal activity for the industry. Companies including Apple, Nokia, Motorola, Microsoft and Google could all see the inside of the court room in 2011.

Sony filed its complaint on Wednesday to the International Trade Commission (ITC), a body that is seeing an increasing number of smartphone suits.

Carolina Milanesi, an analyst at Gartner, said: "It's a strange move by Sony because they have little share of the smartphone market in the US. LG is really eating into their market share in Europe." She added: "We can now wait for LG's countersuit; that's the way these cases have normally gone."

Sony said the phones, which include the Encore, LG Accolade and the Rumor Touch, have technology that infringe its patents and would violate trade rules. It also filed a suit against LG in the Los Angeles District Court.

The patents cover issues including photo-based caller ID, technology for audio and transmission power. These are currently licensed by its joint venture Sony Ericsson as well as Nokia and Samsung.

LG said it would review the technologies in question, telling AFP "we will take action and activelyrespond". The world's third largest handset maker has so far struggled to make an impact in smartphones. In the third quarter its mobile phone sales dropped almost a third, which heralded the chief executive Nam Yong's departure in September. The company said it would invest $14.1bn (£9.2bn) to turn the division around.

Sony's lawsuit follows a series of similar moves from operators, handset makers, and semiconductor groups. Nokia's battle with Apple has escalated since the Finnish group filed inOctober last year, following up with a suit at the ITC which called for iPhone sales in the US to be blocked.

After taking on Apple over its iPhone, iPod and iPad in the US, Nokia has filed cases in the UK, Germany and the Netherlands. Apple countered with lawsuits of its own. It is also locked in patent disputes with the handset makers Motorola and HTC. Steve Jobs has said: "We can sit by and watch competitors steal our patented inventions, or we can do something about it."

Ms Milanesi said: "This is where we are today. Companies are suing because nobody likes a freeloader, and many of these guys have a lot of patents. Licensing these patents can also make a lot of money. It shows the competition out there is getting tougher."

She added: "We haven't seen the end of companies suing over patents, not for a long while." Google, which developed the Android platform found on hundreds of smartphone devices, is also facing a legal challenge. The US technology giant Oracle claims that Android infringes on Java patents that came with its acquisition of Sun. Google has responded that the claims are "baseless".

At the start of the year, Eastman Kodak filed a lawsuit against Apple and Research in Motion (RIM), the Canadian group that makes the BlackBerry, over phone camera technology.

Motorola, in addition to its dispute with Apple, has also been slapped with a lawsuit from Microsoft, and has a complaint outstanding against RIM. Paul Allen, the co-founder of Microsoft, has also filed patent infringementcomplaints against a series of technology companies, including Google,over Android.