As the buyout offers for new technologies and drugs heats up in the pharmaceutical and biotech sectors, it's the patent games - which have turned into all-out legal wars at times, that are heating up in the tech sector. While Facebook (NASDAQ:FB) and Yahoo! (NASDAQ:YHOO) took to the courtrooms to battle over patents, Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) and AOL (NYSE:AOL) played nice and secured a billion dollar patent deal earlier this month, which now looks to have been just a preparatory move before negotiating a three team trade.
Microsoft already made news last week after a solid earnings report sparked a late-week rally, and on Monday morning the company announced that it will receive over half a billion dollars from Facebook as payments for roughly half of the patents that Microsoft acquired from AOL earlier in the month.
According to Monday's press release,
As a result of today's agreement, Facebook will obtain ownership of approximately 650 AOL patents and patent applications, plus a license to the AOL patents and applications that Microsoft will purchase and own.
Upon closing of this transaction with Facebook, Microsoft will retain ownership of approximately 275 AOL patents and applications; a license to the approximately 650 AOL patents and applications that will now be owned by Facebook; and a license to approximately 300 patents that AOL did not sell in its auction.
Is that enough to make your head spin? Like an episode of General Hospital?
There's little doubt the value of obtaining a war chest of Intellectual Property to support the technology that a company has or plans to put on the market, but at what point do all the legal games become a detractor to innovation and the advancing of technology? Have the legalities behind these patents become so intricate that the costs of protecting them will start mirroring R&D costs?
It's starting to look like it.
In the meantime, maybe it's a similar deal to the one that AOL pulled off that can save Research In Motion (RIMM) for the short term.
Research In Motion, of BlackBerry fame, has seen its share price pummeled in the markets as Apple's (NASDAQ:AAPL) iPhone and Google's (NASDAQ:GOOG) Android have stolen market share from BlackBerry quicker than the new Mets closer gets the hook in the ninth inning these days. That said, at what point does RIM start playing the patent game and start selling off - or at least licensing - some of its patents in an attempt to beef up the cash coffers and possibly add some more shareholder value to the company that has taken a drastic hit over the past year?
It shouldn't come as any surprise in America's litigious culture that when competition gets too tough and one's competitors start winning the war with consumers that the game is taken to the courts, but all the patent sharing might not end up being such a bad thing, after all.
By selling patents the players that are losing the game have an opportunity to acquire some much-needed cash to get through the short term, but in the long term it can level the Intellectual Property playing field again and the battle might once again be won or loss in the stores - not in the courts - once the distractions of today are done.
On the other hand, maybe the likes of Yahoo! have decided to make the patent wars a part of a new corporate strategy, after having been handily defeated in cyberspace - the battle zone that matters most.
The likes of Microsoft, Google and Facebook are all too big to consider these games as much more than just that - games - but recognition is there that the licensing and sharing of some of the existing IP might be the best way to offset future legal battles.
On the other hand, the already-defeated players, such as RIM, Yahoo! and AOL have also realized that there might be a short term lifeline gained by selling a portion of itself.
At the end of the day, if attention is turned to the courts and not to producing new technologies or products to compete where it matters, then the short term cash boost provided by the IP sales just might not be enough for these guys.
But the patent wars make for good headlines, at least.
Disclosure: No position.