Patent infringement suits have a reputational cost for universities

This October, a jury found Apple Inc. guilty of infringing a patent of the University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW) and ordered the tech giant to pay $234 million. The university scored a big financial victory, but this hardly meant any gain for the good name of the university.

The plaintiffs argued successfully in court that Apple infringed their 1998 patent on a predictor circuit that greatly improved the efficiency of microchips used in the popular iPhone 5s, 6, and 6 Plus. Apple first responded by challenging the validity of the patent, but the US Patent and Trademark Office ruled in favor of the university. Apple plans to appeal, but the appellate court is not likely to reverse the lower court’s decision.

This is not the first time this university has asserted its patents rights (UW sued Intel in 2008 for this exact same patent and reportedly settled for $110 million). Nor is this the first time universities in general have taken infringers to court. Prominent cases in recent memory include Boston University, which sued several companies for infringement of a patent for blue light-emitting diodes and settled out of court with most of them, and Carnegie Mellon, who was awarded $237 million by the federal appellate court on its infringement suit against Marvell, a semiconductor company, for its use of an enhanced detector of data in hard drives called Kavcic detectors.

Means not always aligned with aims in patent law

When university patented inventions emerge from federal research grants, infringement suits test the accepted interpretations of current patent law.

The Bayh-Dole Act of 1980 extended patent law and gave small-business and universities the right to take title to patents from federal research grants—later it was amended to extend the right to all federal grantees regardless of size. The ostensible aim of this act is to “to promote the utilization of inventions arising from federally supported research or development.” Under the law, a condition for universities (or any other government research performers) to keep their exclusive rights on those patents is that they or their licensees take “effective steps to achieve practical application” of those patents. Bayh-Dole was not designed to create a new source of revenue for universities. If companies are effectively using university technologies, Bayh-Dole’s purpose is served without need of patents.

To understand this point, consider a counterfactual: What if the text of Bayh-Dole had been originally composed to grant a conditional right to patents for federal research grantees? The condition could be stated like this: “This policy seeks to promote the commercialization of federally funded research and to this end it will use the patent system. Grantees may take title to patents if and only if other mechanisms for disseminating and developing those inventions into useful applications prove unsuccessful.” Under this imagined text, the universities could still take title to patents on their inventions if they or the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office were not aware that the technologies were being used in manufactures.

But no court would find their infringement claim meritorious if the accused companies could demonstrate that, absent of willful infringement, they had in fact used the technologies covered by university patents in their commercial products. In this case, other mechanisms for disseminating and developing the technologies would have proven successful indeed. The reality that Bayh-Dole did not mandate such a contingent assignation of rights creates a contradiction between its aims and the means chosen to advance those aims for the subset of patents that were already in use by industry.

I should remark that UW’s predictor circuit resulted from grants from NSF and DARPA and there is no indication that the university exercised its patent rights with any less vigor just because the original research was funded by public funds. In fact, it is fully expected from universities to aggressively assert their patent rights regardless of the source of funding for the original research.


Executive Leadership

Mr. James Moore

Mr. James Moore

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