News abounds of the ongoing "patent war" between large tech companies -- firms that are battling each other in courts on the grounds of infringement while simultaneously arming themselves with large, relevant patent portfolios from newly acquired companies. In July, bankrupt Nortel Networks sold off over 6,000 patents for $4.5B to a consortium led by Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) and Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) while Google's (NASDAQ:GOOG) recent offer to acquire Motorola (NYSE:MMI) for $12.5B includes over 17,000 patents. At the same time, trading in InterDigital (NASDAQ:IDCC) has been volatile as buyout rumors have been swirling around the firm. InterDigital owns about 1,300 wireless technology patents and has been exploring a sale as the company believes its patents are stronger and more relevant than Nortel's.
One way to profit from these ongoing legal disputes is to take positions in established companies that have a record of continuous innovation or own a significant number of patents in hotly-contested areas (mobile technology is a current favorite). Following is a list of three companies that fit this description.
Nuance (NASDAQ:NUAN): A leader in developing software-based speech application technologies, Nuance's ties to Apple (by way of further speech software integration in iOS 5) have made this company the target of acquisition rumors for months. Nuance's patent portfolio consists of technologies used to enable end-to-end applications using voice recognition for queries and data input – a perfect match for mobile devices increasingly using speech as a command and control mechanism.
With a stock price that has doubled over the past five years, a market capitalization of over $5B and relationships with mobile manufacturers worldwide, Nuance is no easy target. With over $70B in the bank, Apple certainly has the means to acquire the company but is not known for making such large purchases. Apple’s competitors, on the other hand, may step in.
Watch for the continuous uptake of speech applications in modern computing and mobile devices. As Apple continues to invest in this space, its competitors will follow, making Nuance's patents an increasingly valuable commodity.
Eastman Kodak (EK): Once worth over $30B, Kodak has had a rough time battling competitors that have put digital cameras into virtually every new mobile device on the market. The natural process of smart phones replacing larger, dedicated digital cameras has led to losses at Kodak in five of the last six years. In order to recover some of this value, the 131-year-old company is looking to monetize its large patent holdings.
The Kodak board understands the value of its patents and that its company's shares are trading at a discount. Early in August 2011, the company adopted a shareholder-rights plan to block a potential takeover at a low price. However, thanks to the recent intellectual property gold rush, Kodak shares have recovered somewhat and may still have room to grow if it turns out its patents auction for more than expected (Nortel's original auction price of $900M for its patents went on to fetch five times as much).
Kodak is currently exploring a potential sale of its intellectual property, and MDB Capital Group reports that Kodak's digital imaging patents could be worth upwards of $3B. A potential suitor for the entire company could spin off Kodak's printing and camera business to fund existing liabilities while keeping the highly-relevant patent portfolio as additional ammunition against other competing manufacturers. Expect the shares to be highly volatile as news regarding a sale continues to surface, but watch carefully for signs that rival tech giants may try to outbid each other for these prized possessions.
NXP Semiconductor (NASDAQ:NXPI): Originally a division of Philips, NXP Semiconductor makes chips used in mobile applications and has recently received strong investor interest due to innovation in the near-field communications (NFC) space. NFC allows mobile devices to communicate securely with other mobile devices or payment terminals, allowing a hand-held device to replace a wallet and personal identification. As device manufacturers around the world test and implement NFC technology, NXP is expected to benefit. NXP's patent portfolio contains 14,000 issued and pending patents in the semiconductor space, and holds the majority of the intellectual property necessary for completing an end-to-end NFC scenario (e.g. a payment system from a mobile device for transit fares).
Since the company's IPO in August 2010, the shares have been on a wild ride fueled by investor interest in their near-field communication technology and then dampened by the latest market downturn. With a current market cap of around $4.5B, NXP could be an attractive target for a large semiconductor firm looking to protect NFC products or a mobile device manufacturer looking to profit from a competitor’s implementation of the technology.
Rumors circulated earlier this year that NXP was in talks with Intel (NASDAQ:INTC), Qualcomm (NASDAQ:QCOM) and others regarding a buyout. Watch these shares carefully as near-field communications becomes an increasingly must-have feature in mobile devices similar to the way digital photo and video capture was a must-have feature in the past.
The market for patents is expanding faster than ever before. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office announced on August 16 that it had issued its 8,000,000th patent. The first 1 million patents issued took over 80 years, while the last 1 million took only five.
Disclosure: I have no positions in any stocks mentioned, and no plans to initiate any positions within the next 72 hours.