One single smartphone -- like an iPhone or an Samsung's best-selling Galaxy S II, an Android-based phone -- can involve as many as 250,000 patent claims, according to Google.
And, patents can outsurvive the underlying people:
By contrast, the Nortel patents were particularly valuable because they lacked licensing commitments: Nortel's previous business agreements got cleared away in its bankruptcy. (In advance of the Nortel auction, Microsoft claimed its own Nortel licenses should survive any ownership transfer on the patents. It's a legal gray area, and a point that became moot when Microsoft became one of the winning bidders.)
All of this means that for the moment, patents are the tech industry's unobtainium: an incredibly valuable resource companies will throw around mind-boggling sums to control.
Kodak and InterDigital spent decades building multi-billion-dollar businesses with thousands of employees and lots of tangible, real-world assets. But in the end, their most valuable possession may be the stacks of paper they control in the U.S. Patent Office's filing cabinets.