Apple's newest courtroom foe is a patent-savvy university

Fri Oct 16, 2015 5:14am EDT
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By Andrew Chung

NEW YORK (Reuters) - As a veteran of the global smart phone wars, Apple(AAPL.O: Quote) is used to courtroom battles with fierce competitors such as Samsung(005930.KS: Quote) and Nokia(NOKIA.HE: Quote).

This week, however, a federal jury returned a verdict against Apple in a lawsuit brought by a different kind of adversary: a public university.

The University of Wisconsin-Madison's licensing arm, the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, convinced a jury that Apple had infringed its patent for improving chip efficiency when the company incorporated the technology into some of its phones and tablets.

Research institutions and universities have not traditionally been major players in patent litigation, and even now schools still launch relatively few patent suits compared to private companies - about 40 to 50 cases per year, according to preliminary research by University of Alberta professor Tania Bubela.

But within that world, WARF has become an aggressive litigator. Since 2000, the foundation has filed 33 lawsuits against 31 different defendants, according to a Reuters analysis of federal court data maintained by RPX Corp, a patent risk management firm.

In the current case, WARF is claiming $400 million in damages from Apple. As the dispute over how much the iPhone maker owes is hashed out, critics are questioning whether schools receiving public money for research should be engaged in hostile patent litigation.

WARF, however, has argued that such lawsuits are key to monetizing inventions created at research universities, and that protecting patents encourages innovation. The Apple trial is now in the damages phase, and if WARF gets anywhere close to what it is asking, it would be one of the largest patent payouts ever to a university.

Attorney Michael Ng, who has represented Australia's national science agency in U.S. courts, said that universities are feeling forced into litigation. "In recent years there has been a greater reluctance, for example in high-tech, to do voluntary licensing deals, and that sometimes leaves holders of intellectual property with no other recourse."   Continued...

A customer holds an iPhone 6s during the official launch at the Apple store in central Sydney, Australia, September 25, 2015. REUTERS/David Gray