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By | May 16, 1996

      TRW Inc. followed up months of threats regarding infringement of its Odyssey system design patents by filing a lawsuit against ICO Global Communications Ltd. in federal court in California last Friday, May 10.

      The suit seeks an injunction to halt ICO’s development of its MSS system on grounds that it infringes the Odyssey patents, and includes a damages claim. Only ICO is named in the suit, not Hughes Telecommunications & Space Co., although Hughes potentially could be named later. Hughes has a $1.3 billion contract to build the 12 ICO satellites.

      ICO officials had not seen a copy of the suit by deadline and would not comment other than to reiterate the company’s longstanding position. “The company is quite confident that there is no infringement, and they are fighting it,” said an ICO attorney on May 15. TRW’s patents were awarded in July 1995.

      TRW claims the central patent (U.S. Patent No. 5,433,726) covers “a method for providing worldwide, satellite-based cellular communications that employs a constellation of satellites in a medium- Earth orbit, low-power pocket telephones, and ‘gateways’ to terrestrial phone systems.”

      However, Comsat Corp., one of the primary ICO investors (at $147 million), is confident the patent “is a narrow patent, not a broad, general application,” said Warren Zeger, company vice president and general counsel.

      TRW had threatened a lawsuit prior to Comsat’s decision in ICO, Zeger added. “We have anticipated it. There’s no surprise here. We think ICO is on very solid ground, as is Comsat as an investor.”

      …Extent of TRW’s Patent To Be Defined in Court

      The eventual court ruling on the lawsuit will define the parameters of TRW’s claim, observed Hughes spokesman Don O’Neill. Hughes claimed the patent’s issues were “overly broad” during public comment sessions with the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office, O’Neill added. “Hughes is proceeding with development and construction of the satellites without any interruption at all.”

      While granting that “there may be some similarities between the two systems,” he added, “Hughes’ belief is that the technology between the two [systems] is significantly different enough that there is no infringement.”

      However, TRW points out that it and Inmarsat worked jointly on a medium-Earth-orbit system as late as 1993.

      Other industry sources questioned why Hughes was not named in the lawsuit. One observer said the omission may have been a “tactical move,” in that “TRW didn’t want to tangle with the big guy.”

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