BlackBerry is gradually feeling out its new niche as a veritable patent troll. Following a complaint it filed against Facebook last month, the company has filed fresh litigation against Snap, creator of Snapchat, for allegedly infringing its messaging patents.
Bloomberg first reported the lawsuit yesterday. It claims that BlackBerry has been trying to resolve Snap's alleged infringement of six of its patents for the last year. "Various letters, calls and an in-person meeting," as the lawsuit puts it, have resulted in failure to find an acceptable resolution.
It should come as no surprise that the patents relate to BlackBerry's BBM messaging service, which was considered the crown jewel of the company in the days when it was known as "CrackBerry" due to its popularity. Among the features that BlackBerry claims Snap stole, it lists the display of timestamps in the messaging interface, and "mapping techniques to establish and maintain real-time activity location information".
According to the complaint:
Defendant's use of BlackBerry's inventions and infringement of the Patents-in-Suit have succeeded in diverting consumers away from BlackBerry's products and services and toward those of Defendant. This infringement has resulted in a substantial and undeserved windfall for Defendant as these users drive Defendant's revenue. Defendant's gain comes at BlackBerry's expense, depriving BlackBerry of revenue to which it is entitled as a result of its inventions.
While Snap has experienced rapid growth over the last few years, it's hard to call it a success story. For the last two months, its stock price has slipped further towards oblivion. It's currently close to an all-time low after getting a huge bump in January. That's resulted in two rounds of layoffs of more than 200 people.
BlackBerry, on the other hand, is on the rise despite being miles away from its mid-aughts peak. In 2008 it was selling at $US144 ($187) per share; today it goes for about $US10 ($13). But it gained around 50 per cent in 2017 as it's come to terms with its new business approach. TCL licensed the BlackBerry name in 2016 and has manufactured several new handsets. BlackBerry LTD pivoted to become a software company, but some analysts believe that it has much greater potential in profiting from litigation around its patent portfolio. IEEE ranked BlackBerry fourth in the category of internet and communication services for its annual patent power rankings in 2016. Google, Facebook and Verizon were the only companies to rank higher.
In 2015, BlackBerry CEO John Chen claimed that the company holds "about 44,000 patents", and monetisation of those patents "is an important aspect of our turnaround". Since then, it's filed litigation against Facebook, Avaya, BLU, Nokia, Cisco, and most bizarrely, Ryan Seacrest for his Typo iPhone case that attempted to slap a BlackBerry-like keyboard on an iPhone.
Investors seem to like the strategy, and so far it's resulted in numerous settlements. Whether BlackBerry's various claims have merit will be up to the courts to decide, but the features it mentions in the suit certainly seem to fall into the category of "just the way things are now". A patent for a timestamp on a message seems as obvious and frivolous as IBM's claim on out-of-office email. But hey, I'm not a corporate patent attorney.
We reached out to Snap for comment and to ask if it will fight BlackBerry in court, but had not received a response at time of writing.