Patent Peace: Apple’s Tim Cook, Google’s Larry Page in CEO Talks

One week after Apple's $1 billion win over Samsung, Apple CEO Tim Cook and Google CEO Larry Page are holding secret patent talks. Is peace possible?

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Reuters (2)

From left: Google CEO Larry Page; Apple CEO Tim Cook

Apple’s late co-founder and revered CEO Steve Jobs had very strong feelings about Google’s Android mobile operating system. Specifically, as he told his biographer Walter Isaacson, Jobs felt that Google “f*cking ripped off the iPhone.” Jobs pledged to devote his “last dying breath” and spend all of the company’s cash to “destroy Android, because it’s a stolen product.” He vowed “thermonuclear war.”

Apple’s $1 billion victory over key Android partner Samsung last Friday was the most decisive victory yet in Apple’s worldwide proxy war against Google. But could peace be on the horizon? That’s the prospect raised by a new Reuters report — since backed up by other news organizations — that reveals ongoing patent discussions between current Apple CEO Tim Cook and Google CEO Larry Page.

It’s worth noting that neither Cook nor Page was CEO when the original iPhone-Android patent war kicked-off. That spat led to then-Google CEO Eric Schmidt’s polite exit from Apple’s board of directors. Jobs, a demanding perfectionist prone to towering rages, felt Schmidt stabbed him in the back, as the vivid quotes above illustrate. There may have been too much bad blood between Jobs and Schmidt to even contemplate any sort of patent peace.

Now that Cook and Page — both of whom are known to posses cooler heads than Jobs — are in charge, is a rapprochement possible? It’s certainly an appealing prospect, given how much time, energy and money has been spent litigating this intellectual property dispute in jurisdictions worldwide.

(READ MORE: Apple’s $1 Billion Patent Win Over Samsung Rattles Google’s Cage)

Page and Cook have been holding what appear to have been secret (until Thursday), back-channel discussions “about a range of intellectual property matters, including the ongoing mobile patent disputes between the companies,” Reuters reported, citing people familiar with the matter. The two tech honchos held a parley on the subject last week and are expected to hold talks again in the coming weeks, according to the report.

Their lieutenants are also conducting ongoing discussions. For those who view the present U.S. intellectual property regime as deeply flawed — count me among them — news of the talks raises the prospect, however faint, that the mobile industry may soon move beyond the multi-front patent wars that have thus far accomplished few tangible results, other than to line the pockets of intellectual property lawyers.

Last week, a federal jury in San Jose, California found that several of Samsung’s products infringed Apple’s smartphone patents. In short, Korean mobile giant Samsung ripped off Apple’s iPhone designs. (TIME‘s Jared Newman broke down the specific hardware implications of the decision here.) Apple is now asking the court to bar Samsung, the world’s largest mobile phone manufacturer, from selling eight of its models in the United States. Samsung has pledged to appeal the verdict.

(READ MORE: Why Apple’s Win over Samsung Is Ultimately Good News for Consumers)

Meanwhile, the two companies are battling over similar issues in several other jurisdictions around the world. (On Friday, a judge in Japan ruled in Samsung’s favor against Apple in another ongoing patent case.) Competition in the mobile phone market remains fierce: in just a few short years, Android has become the top smartphone operating system in the world, even as Apple’s iPhone is considered the gold-standard for smartphone design.

“One possible scenario under consideration could be a truce involving disputes over basic features and functions in Google’s Android mobile software,” Reuters reported, citing a source familiar with the matter. “But it’s unclear whether Page and Cook are discussing a broad settlement of the various disputes between the two companies – most of which involve the burgeoning mobile computing area – or are focused on a more limited set of issues.”

Bottom line: Inventors must be protected and intellectual property respected. But frankly, the patent battles raging in courtrooms around the globe are beneath Apple and Google, two of the most respected tech companies in the world. Consumers want to see these firms compete in the marketplace, not bicker in courtrooms over highly-technical patents. They want to see the companies innovate, not litigate. It’s encouraging to hear that Apple and Google are keeping lines of communication open at the “highest level,” as Reuters reported.

Nobody likes lawsuits other than lawyers, and Cook is no exception: Last spring, Cook declared that he’s “always hated litigation, and I continue to hate it.” He said he would prefer to settle the dispute, but maintained correctly that it’s his job to protect Apple’s inventions. For Page’s part, dealing with the ongoing patent litigation is no doubt one of the more annoying aspects of his job. So it’s encouraging to see these two tech titans talking. C’mon guys, if you need to hammer out a licensing deal, so be it, but let’s take this fight out of the courtroom and back into the marketplace, where it belongs.