Viber messaging app banned in South Korea over patent dispute

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By Larry Banks

Most of South Korea’s smartphone messaging apps could be in for tough times, after Viber’s recent loss of a patent lawsuit to the country’s number one mobile operator SK Telecom, which has led to a probably ban on its iOS and Android apps in the country.

Viber banned

A court has ruled in SK Telecom’s favour, that Rakuten-owned messaging service Viber’s “feature of reorganizing selected information from contact numbers saved in a smartphone into the application” violated an existing patent that was held by the operator since 2006, reports The Korea Herald.

The Seoul Central District Court said Viber infringed on four patents held by SK Telecom, and that the company should not distribute its application in the South Korean market. The messaging service has not yet stated whether it will appeal to higher courts to contest the proposed ban.

One of the patents in question deals with an ‘onboarding’ feature, that is already common to lots of other messaging apps such as Line and KakaoTalk, which automatically add a user’s contacts from their phone, to allow users to quickly find people they already know that use the service.

However, these kind of apps are already destroying mobile operators’ voice and SMS revenues, so it’s hardly a surprise that SK Telecom would want to challenge them in the courts. Last year, Talmon Marco, who is CEO and founder of Viber, said that SK Telecom’s move is aimed at stopping companies like Viber and KakaoTalk from operating, and to force Korean users back to short-message-services. The mobile carrier says simply that the lawsuit is for the protection of its technology.

In fact, Viber is not that popular in South Korea, but SK Telecom may take the company on to test the waters. The legal victory ensures that it has more chances of success if it were to take on larger players in South Korea, such as KakaoTalk, which is installed on nearly 95 percent of smartphones in the country and has an estimated 37 million users out of 50 million people. KakaoTalk has already stated that it was not aware of the recent ruling, and that it has not yet been contacted by SK Telecom.

Whatever happens, it looks like there may well be further legal skirmishes between SK Telecom and messaging apps in the future.

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