By Alistair Barr
SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Amazon.com Inc is recruiting a cadre of intellectual property experts for a push into patent acquisition and licensing, the latest turn in its intensifying battles with Apple Inc and Google Inc in mobile devices and digital content.
Amazon has hired executive recruiting firm Argos Search to help the company hire an intellectual property "Acquisition and Investment Leader" to "identify and evaluate strategic IP acquisition and licensing opportunities," according to a job description obtained this week by Reuters.
The candidate will work closely with all Amazon's technology teams and leaders on future product development, according to the description.
"At Amazon we are rapidly growing in many new and exciting technology areas," the company said in the job posting. "To support and protect our expansion we are seeking an executive to work with our business teams to identify and procure intellectual property."
An Amazon spokeswoman did not respond to an email seeking comment. Thomas Wedewer, an Argos executive recruiter working on the project, declined to comment.
The search suggests that Amazon is trying to amass more patents, either through acquisitions of patent-rich companies, purchases of patent portfolios or licensing, according to intellectual property experts. It is also a sign that the world's largest Internet retailer is serious about being a long-term player in mobile devices and digital content, they say.
Amazon is known for developing its own patents, but mostly in the e-commerce area. An expansion into mobile devices and the delivery of digital content to those devices will require a lot of different patents, intellectual property experts say.
"As they get into wireless devices and digital media, they realize the best way to handle this is to get more proactive in IP," said David Pridham of IPNav, which helps companies make money from their patents.
"They are following Apple by delivering digital media to their own hardware devices," he added. "That's the type of technology they want to build an IP fence around."
Buying or licensing intellectual property in these areas will help Amazon protect itself against potential lawsuits alleging it infringes other companies' patents, Pridham said.
"The time for Amazon to go after an IP portfolio is not when they are sued. They want to get the IP ahead of time," he said.
Amazon can also use such patents as a currency for joint ventures and partnerships, according to Vincent Pluvinage, managing partner of Invention Capital Partners.
"Amazon competes with Apple in certain areas and Google in others," Pluvinage said. "It's becoming obvious that building a portfolio is very important both financially and strategically."
Apple accumulated a lot of patents last year when it was part of a group of tech companies that paid $4.5 billion for patent assets from Nortel Networks.
Google agreed to buy Motorola Mobility for $12.5 billion last year, partly to use Motorola's patents to fend off legal attacks on its Android mobile platform.
Technology giants are now lining up to bid on a portfolio of patents being sold by Eastman Kodak.
Amazon has already hired three patent experts this year.
Kelly Jo MacArthur, a former general counsel of RealNetworks, became vice president IP Acquisitions and Investments at Amazon in January, according to her LinkedIn profile.
Bill Way, who was also general counsel at RealNetworks, joined Amazon in April, according to his LinkedIn profile.
RealNetworks, known for its RealPlayer online media software, also owns Helix, a technology for delivering digital music and video to PCs, mobile phones and other devices.
Matt Gordon became a general manager of Patent Acquisitions and Investments at Amazon in May, according to LinkedIn. Gordon came from Intellectual Ventures, one of the largest owners of patents run by former Microsoft Corp executive Nathan Myhrvold.
"Buying patents takes a unique skill set. Hiring someone like Matt is a very positive move," said Grant Moss, chief executive of patent broker Adapt IP Ventures.
Moss said he speaks frequently with Gordon, who declined to comment.
"These hires show that the decision-makers at Amazon are thinking about patent acquisitions now," Moss added. "Amazon has filed quite a few of its own patents, but at some point you have to look outside for other people's patents."
Amazon licensed patents from Acacia Research Corp around the end of 2011, according to Acacia Chief Executive Paul Ryan.
The patents cover technology that includes functionality for tablet computers and smartphones, Ryan said.
Acacia obtained the rights to license the patents from a Japanese company called Access Co, which owns PalmSource. PalmSource developed the Palm operating system that ran on the Treo and other early mobile devices.
"This is related to their foray into tablets," Ryan said. "Initially they were a pretty straightforward online retailer, but they are now getting into more sophisticated areas and need more IP for that."
After the Kindle Fire tablet came out in September 2011, Acacia's licensing executives contacted Amazon about the patents, according to Ryan.
"Amazon was very responsive," Ryan said. "They are pretty sophisticated around emerging IP impacting new initiatives they have."
(Reporting by Alistair Barr; editing by Matthew Lewis)