As a veteran of the global smart phone wars, Apple is used to courtroom battles with fierce competitors such as Samsung and Nokia but 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.
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.”
In its current lawsuit, WARF hired one of the country’s top patent litigators, Morgan Chu, to go head-to-head with Apple attorney William Lee. And last month WARF sued Apple again over the same patent, this time targeting the company’s newest products, the iPhone 6S and 6S Plus, and iPad Pro. WARF also sued Intel Corp in 2008, but the case was settled the following year on the eve of trial.
WARF, housed on the university’s Madison campus, has been around for 90 years and helps patent and commercialize the university’s inventions. In 2014-15 alone, it provided more than $100 million in direct and in-kind support to the university, it said.