Is Apple patent defeat a victory for universities?

Apple has won patent infringement lawsuits against other companies, but its Friday loss to a university could have significant impacts on other university researchers concerned about their intellectual property rights. 

Denis Balibouse/Reuters/File
A visitor looks at Apple patents displayed at the World Intellectual Property Organization headquarters in Geneva, in 2012. A jury ordered Apple Inc to pay the University of Wisconsin-Madison's patent licensing arm for incorporating its technology into iPhones and iPads without permission.

Apple fights patent cases fairly often – and doesn't always win – so Friday's loss is not a totally new phenomenon.

What makes the case unusual was the party that sued: a computer science professor and three graduate students from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. 

The university research team, headed by Guri Sohi, filed a patent in 1998 for microchip technology that Apple used in the most recent versions of the iPad and iPhone, a US federal jury ruled on Tuesday. On Friday, the court awarded $234 million in damages.

The ruling is a victory for university researchers, proclaimed the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF), a non-profit that exists primarily to help University of Wisconsin professors with patents. 

"This is a case where the hard work of our university researchers and the integrity of patenting and licensing discoveries has prevailed," Carl Gulbrandsen, managing director of WARF, said in a news release. "This decision is great news for the inventors, the University of Wisconsin–Madison, and for WARF."

After WARF filed in lawsuit in early 2014, Apple unsuccessfully tried to challenge the 1998 patent at the US Patent and Trademark Office. In court last week, Apple's main argument once again was that the patent itself was invalid.

The double defeat of these claims could embolden other professors who feel companies have taken the fruits of their patented research without compensation.

"Now we have two different venues, as well as the patent office, essentially finding significant strength and merit in that patent," said Michael Cronin, a lawyer who provides legal work for WARF but not for this case specifically, to the Milwaukee-Wisconsin Journal Sentinel. 

The patent had held up during an earlier lawsuit as well, when the university team sued Intel in 2008 over use of the same microchip. That time, the company settled out of court and paid $110 million to license the technology, so they could use the patented microchip legally. 

Apple plans to appeal the court's decision, but if they are unsuccessful, they, too will need to either pay a licensing fee or else abandon the chip.

The court awarded the researchers $234 million, less than a third of the $862 million WARF had sought, because the court ruled that Apple's patent infringement was not willful.

The professor behind the patent praised his team's innovation. "We believed our technology was ahead of its time," said Professor Sohi.

"Almost two decades ago we tried to anticipate how computers would need to operate today," Sohi said. "Our team invested the equivalent of more than 11 years of work to solve this problem." 

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