David vs Golliath

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Small German Tech Firm Takes on China in Patent Dispute

LPKF Laser
A LPKF scientist works on a laser experiment.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    LPKF Laser & Electronics AG lost its patent in China for a proprietary technology used in smartphones and tablets, but the company is taking the battle to the Chinese Supreme Court.

  • Facts

    Facts

    • LPKF spent 10 years developing a miniaturization process that allows the installation of up to six separate antennas in mobile radio units, which helps keep smartphones and tablets slim and lightweight.
    • A private lawsuit filed in China, which may be connected to the nation’s technology sector, was successful in revoking the Chinese patent last year.
    • Even if the German company loses the high court case, the future looks bright because the process can be used in many forms of technology.
  • Audio

    Audio

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It’s the eternal David-versus-Goliath story of the small defending itself against the big, only in this case, the small one is very tiny and the big one virtually all-powerful.

The battle is being waged in the Supreme Court of China over a patent for a basic, but critical technology that helps make modern smartphones and tablets much thinner.

The combatants are LPKF Laser & Electronics AG, which is located in Garbsen in Lower Saxony, versus the Republic of China, which in 2013 declared the company’s manufacturing patent invalid after private individuals filed a lawsuit. LPKF generated about €140 million ($184 million) in revenues last year compared with China’s gross domestic product of €6.3 trillion.

“When you have a patent, you also have to fight for it,” a defiant Ingo Bretthauer, chief executive officer of LPKF, told Handelsblatt.

At issue is a manufacturing process created by LPKF several years ago allowing antennas to virtually disappear inside mobile radio units. Lasers scratch recesses into a special synthetic material filled with microfine metal balls that can be filled with a conductive metal solution. This allows the company to place as many as six different mini-antennas in a high quality smartphone, covering the whole range of frequencies, while accommodating new wireless standards such as Bluetooth or near field communications.

The process is used worldwide. Producers such as Apple and South Korea-based Samsung have placed their bets on the laser-direct-structuring technology. The manufacturing process has enjoyed patent protection in all major markets except China, where an application for annulment cruised through the lower courts and voided LPKF’s patent.

Simultaneously, the first imitation laser direct structuring or LDS products began to emerge from China. Observers of the country’s industries say it’s not unusual for a Chinese technology company to hide behind a private lawsuit such as the one filed against LPKF. The case has fallen to the Supreme Court of China to examine whether the patent will be renewed or denied.

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