Jack Ellis

Just as Qualcomm has stepped up its global litigation campaign against Meizu, senior executives at the Chinese smartphone maker have accused domestic competitors of patent infringement. The claims that other Chinese vendors are infringing the company's patents seem somewhat contradictory to its stance on Qualcomm's actions and its suggestion that they represent an attack on the entirety of China's mobile industry.

As reported by the Android Headlines fansite, Meizu vice president Li Nan claimed in posts to the Weibo microblogging network that the new M1 and M1L smartphones launched this week by Beijing-based Smartisan copy features patented by his company. In particular, he suggested that Meizu’s ‘mBack’ button, which utilises haptic technology to eliminate the need for separate buttons for the performance of ‘forward’ and ‘back’ functions, had been copied by Smartisan. Li Nan posted a screenshot from what appears to be the China State IP Office's online patent records depicting details of Meizu’s patent on this feature (see reports here and here, in Chinese).

Moreover, he went on to suggest that other competitors including Oppo, Xiaomi, OnePlus and ZUK Mobile – a subsidiary of Lenovo – also infringed on the patent. Another Meizu executive made similar claims via Weibo posts.

Making public allegations of patent infringement, without having previously filed a legal complaint, is nothing new in China. Oppo did just that when it claimed that iNew and Polaroid ripped-off one of its phones back in January 2015. Shenzhen’s ZTE appeared to do the same back later that year when it accused cross-town competitor Huawei of infringing several of its smartphone-relevant patents; it also chose Weibo as the medium for making its claims. After Huawei’s public response and refutation, it isn’t clear if this matter ever progressed to the courts. Earlier this year, ZTE sent cease-and-desist notices to Qiku claiming infringement of its design patents; again, it is unclear how this case has developed.

For Zhuhai-based Meizu and the companies it has levelled its allegations at, things are rather different, though. Unlike ZTE and Huawei, Meizu, Oppo, Xiaomi and the others generally do not own massive numbers of patents – though they have made efforts of late to address their lack of assets. Whereas Huawei and ZTE’s formidable portfolios can act as a powerful deterrent to would-be assailants, the relatively IP-deprived Meizu may be inviting attack by making allegations without the legal wherewithal to back them up.

What makes this story particularly extraordinary is the fact that Meizu itself is currently defending a plethora of patent lawsuits filed against it around the world by Qualcomm. The US chipmaker initially sued Meizu in the Beijing IP Court back in June, accusing the smartphone maker of being “unwilling to negotiate in good faith” regarding a licence for patents relating to 3G and 4G wireless standards. Qualcomm followed this up with a further 17 suits in the Beijing and Shanghai IP courts; and last week expanded its campaign worldwide, suing Meizu in Germany, filing a complaint with the US International Trade Commission and pursuing an ‘infringement-seizure action’ in France aimed at the collection of evidence for use in potential future lawsuits.

In response to these latest actions, Meizu attempted paint its predicament as one that doesn’t only affect it alone, but China as a whole. In a statement, it claimed that “China’s entire mobile phone industry will be faced with crisis” should Qualcomm prevail, suggested that such an outcome would result in billions of dollars in patent licensing costs being shouldered by consumers if Qualcomm’s post-antitrust settlement licensing model goes unchallenged.

The social media posts made by the Meizu executives are just that; as far as we know at this stage, they have not been accompanied by any legal action. Even so, Meizu’s claim that Qualcomm’s infringement actions represent a “crisis” for China’s mobile industry, while at the same time making its own infringement complaints against competitors, may be difficult to reconcile for some. Meizu seems to have been keen to put itself at the vanguard of China’s domestic smartphone industry in facing down alleged aggression on the part of foreign patent owners like Qualcomm. Throwing around its own infringement accusations against other members of that domestic industry could backfire.