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Boston University sues Apple over 1997 patent, asks for ban on iPhone sales

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How do college students feel about this one? The powers that be at Boston University want a federal court to ban the sale of a wide range of Apple(s aapl) products — including the iPhone 5, the iPad and the MacBook Air — because they allegedly infringe a patent issued to one of its professors in 1997.

In a complaint filed this week in the Massachusetts federal court, the trustees of BU say the Apple products contain a “gallium nitride thin film semiconductor device” that is still under patent protection. Professor Theodore Moustakas applied for the patent in 1995, which means it is set to expire in 2015. Here’s an image from the patent, which describes the use of nitrogen to prepare a type of film that is “a potential source of inexpensive and compact solid-state blue lasers:”

Patent screenshot

Boston University is not only seeking an injunction banning the sale of a wide range of Apple products, but is also asking for an accounting of Apple’s profits — meaning the school wants Apple to hand over its earnings from the last few years. If that happens, lucky BU students can expect free tuition and gold-plated water fountains (which would presumably make up for the absence of new Apple gear).

More realistically, Apple will attack the patent or else settle quietly. The episode is likely to raise the question, yet again, of how well the patent system, and the 20 year monopolies it awards, are serving America’s digital economy. In this case, some may wonder why it took BU so long to commence their gold-mining expedition. You can read the complaint for yourself here:

BU v Apple

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70 Responses to “Boston University sues Apple over 1997 patent, asks for ban on iPhone sales”

  1. lrd555

    Apple doesn’t fab it’s own chips? So is Apple really the one who should be getting sued here? That would be my first question. Or is Apple among the big names that use the chips that a Samsung, for example, manufactures for them and others.

    Just smells of sue happy splattering to me.

    • No they don’t fab there own chips, but they licence and control the manufacturing process, Samsung and others are being sued also under the same patient,

      They do have licence agreements with others for there patients.

  2. I agree with most comments above, Yes this at first light appears to be another troll, but I see it from this point of view, What if you invented something, a process but haven’t got access to a mamnufacturing plant, haven’t got umpteen million (Insert local currency here) to setup the process but have managed to replicate and confirm your process on a small scale in a lab, wouldn’t you want to protect all the hard work you had done to get that far.

    If others profit from your work wouldn’t you want to do something about it.

    Now this isn’t just related to apple, but other companies also, its just apple appears to be getting the headlines as usual, The reason it appears they are going after apple after reading the report apple get others to make there parts, they license them to the manufacturers, and as such apple are the ones instructing the manufacturing plants to do there bidding, therefor the plants are immune from prosecution and therefor need to go after the licensee.

    After reading most of the comments above people need to learn the history of some companies, Apple and Microsoft have a good relationship and for a ling time have gotten along with each other, That may have something to do with the fact Apple licences its past, present and future GUI’s to Microsoft in return for a hefty fee thus saving Apple from the brink of going bust so they didn’t steal anything they licensed it.

    Apple have invented in the past but mostly they improve things for the better then sell it to the masses, they have a great marketing department but recently there new adds just don’t cut it with me, also some of there older ones insulting windows was just wrong.

  3. Gauchogolfer

    Gallium nitride is used for BluRay drives, so this patent should more properly target those manufacturers, not Apple. Maybe they should also sue companies like Cree, Philips Lumileds, and Nichia, who all make the GaN components in question.

  4. Kevin

    The professor isnt a gold digging troll. he is a researcher and businesman who license his work to be used by manufacturers. to protect his business and whatever share boston gets it is necessary for a legal suit. They did sue Samsung and was told they needed to goto apple after years of litigation. Apple licensed samsung to make the chip and everyone knows that apple is ery propietery with their contracts and design specifications.

  5. Gary Hull

    I really have only one question to ask… if the patent was filled 18 years ago and the devices named have certainly been on sale now for several years, why the complaint now rather than years ago???

  6. AdMan

    Imagine this. You have a great idea for a new product, you source pre-existing components from a multitude of established suppliers, then engineer, create or invent the balance of the components to make it all possible. There is nothing like it on the market, you are ready to launch….


    …Now you must get a team of people to read through every technology patent granted in the last 20 years to see if any part of any component or any method of doing something infringes on someone else’s intellectual property.

    Nothing would ever get made!!!!

    This BU lawsuit should have just targeted the manufacturer/supplier of the component in question. They should have monitored and licensed this patent fairly to the industry a decade before the iPhone ever saw the light of day. Going after Apple is just publicity grandstanding in an attempt to leverage the most money; that makes them a patent troll, plain and simple.

  7. frank

    If BU wins the students will receive nothing. BU might build new buildings and give certain profs raises, but the students will still pay the same tuition (the author is being sarcastic or brain dead).

  8. Mike P.

    Somebody is trying to get just a little more coin on a patent expiring shortly.

    The gallium nitride thin-film patent covers a way to fabricate a substrate for specialized components used in UHF/microwave radio circuitry as well as some white-light LEDs. Apple doesn’t make these sorts of parts. They buy Bluetooth/WiFi chips and LEDs from vendors. The typical vendor contract has the vendor indemnify (insure) the purchaser (Apple) against intellectual property damages, so if a vendor is using the 5,686,738 patent technology in their product, they are ultimately on the hook for any unlicensed use.

    Boston University is just going after the proverbial Deep Pockets.

  9. Patents are cool

    You don’t need to make something to validate your patent. It’s called intellectual property, and that dude from BU owns it. If you steal the intellectual property and make money with it, that’s patent infringement. Quite simple, and illegal. Sit down apple fanboys you have no argument.

  10. Mr Flazm

    I know there is always a lot of love/hate with anything apple.
    But come on, how can you think a professor at a world class university who actually invented what must have then been an incredibly complex process in 1995, is a troll?

  11. “Boston University is not only seeking an injunction banning the sale of a wide range of Apple products”

    Oh really BU? Did you use your patent in a device so similar to the iPhone 5 that if I’m in the market for an iPhone 5, I can buy yours and be just as happy with it?

    No? Well then fuck you. What right do you have to stop me from buying a product I want to buy, if you don’t offer an equivalent option that I can purchase instead? Sorry, but you can’t just patent technology and not do anything with it. Legal or not, it’s IMMORAL. So I repeat: FUCK YOU. Keep your grubby hands off consumer products people want to buy. It’s YOUR fault you didn’t do anything useful with your invention.

  12. SftwreEng

    I love all the apple fan boys coming to defend their messiah, they are a great company but stop acting like they are the ones inventing these ideas… They merely improve and gold plate others ideas. They are not the only ones suing people but they did push the patent war into what it is today. All software patents should be banned for the greater good of technology.

  13. Phil Kim

    it would be disaster if BU wins this case, certain not in favor for patent trolls. the world has changed due to Apple. jealousy and greed however never ends.

  14. Feldur

    Apple themselves do not make devices using the technology of the patent. To whatever extent the patent applies, it’s used by manufacturers from whom Apple would purchase components, and it’s reasonable to ask what licenses those manufacturers have and what indemnification they provide to their customers. Jumping on the “Apple is bad” bandwagon is at best premature given what limited information is in this article.

    • That depends on which semiconductor is being sited in the suit. If it’s the A5 processor chip, that is manufactured by Apple. Remember, Apple acquired a couple of chip manufacturers a while back to help them produce better mobile processors.

  15. This isn’t a troll though. Its a real scientist, who invented a real process, and who patented his idea because he wasn’t a 10 billion dollar company that was going to make billions of blue lasers, and he didn’t want a 10 billion dollar company taking his idea, making 12 billion off it, and not ever seeing a penny himself.

    The Apples and Samsungs of the world, on the other hand, are patenting things like “A phone with a touch screen” or “round green icons”, and expecting the same protections to apply. And along the way they’re clogging up the patent system with so much crap that it can’t hope to handle it, leading to a system where everything is granted, and these problems have to be settled in long expensive court proceeding, which just happen to keep the little guys from having any chance to compete at all.

    • Really?

      No, he is a troll with a capital ‘T’; never had any intention of building a product; never actually built a product… and is actually suing the company who buys the product from someone else. If it is a valid patent, if there was actual infringement of the patent, then it is Sharp, Samsung and LG (who build the displays and sell them) who are the actual perpetrators, not Apple. BU may as well sue everyone who owns an LCD TV… They are targeting deep pockets like any other, useless, bottom dwelling, lazy patent troll; walks like a duck…

      • trollhunter

        No, not at all. The professor is a researcher — he didn’t build a “product” — he actually invented something, did the science, and created it. It wasn’t a business method, or software patent, or part of a roll-up of patents with the sole intention of making money off of licensing.

        There are still plenty of reasons to be concerned about suits like this — but the notion that scientist and research institutions can only benefit when they directly commercialize something is crazy. Cases like this are one of the few places where protections *may* make sense — if research instituions can’t license their discoveries (i.e., it’s permissible for them to just be taken without compensation), how do they reap some benefit?

        I have no idea in this case if that is what happened — but it’s possible that this was a crucial invention. It’s no ta thing like what real patent trolls like Intellectual Ventures do — it doesn’t remotely walk, or talk like that duck.

    • longbeachlouise

      And who is footing the bill for the courtroom time and salaries? The tax payer, the little guy who pays a full share, not Apple which sends 70% of its profits overseas to avoid taxes.

    • longbeachlouise

      Who pays the courtroom time and salaries of the staff? Taxpayers, the majority of whom pay the most out of their smaller incomes, while Apple sends 70% of its profitis overseas untaxed.

  16. His Shadow

    Typical of the abuse of the patent system that BU is suing the end user of a device that almost certainly in every single piece of electronics sold today. You might as well sue Ford when disputing a patent regarding a method of curing rubber. But Apple has the deepest pockets and has headquarters in the US. Let’s see the BU sue Pegatron or Foxxconn.

  17. Hello !
    This is quite heart rending news. Apple could not do that. :( I really like iphone and waiting for its new inventions. Best of luck to Apple.
    Thanks for informing us.

    • You know, Apple gets sued all the time by patent trolls: people who claim ownership of an idea but don’t actually do anything to develop product that uses the idea.

      Apple, on the other hand, develops ideas, patents them, turns them into successful products that it actively markets, and then sues a few companies who copy those ideas.

      There is a vast difference between these things.

      • Tilghman Lësher

        Apple is neither completely innocent of patent trolling, nor a complete evil troll. As with many other companies, they are somewhere in the middle, sometimes defending themselves from poorly written patents and at other times prosecuting poorly awarded patents.

      • dabble53

        Apple at one time actually bragged about how they stole, I mean appropriated ideas and then marketed them. Not unlike how MS “innovates.”

        • Steve Jobs’ comments about “stealing great ideas” from was the 1990s before any ideas were really patented.

          Apple originally invented all sorts of novel things in the 80s, many of which built upon the original ideas of others. But Apple enriched Xerox and other companies it purportedly “stole” from, and nobody had patents on any of the software.

          Microsoft purely stole Apple’s Macintosh, stole QuickTime code, and screwed over its former partner after Apple helped MS get into the software apps business on the Mac with Office. That’s not really the same thing. Apple used over copyright, not patents, because that’s all it had.

          Google similarly stole from Apple, but Google expressly stole Apple’s patented ideas. Samsung did the same.

          Apple pays licensing feels to Nokia, MPEG, Microsoft and lots of other companies. But Google, Motorola, Samsung and the sort are purely stealing other’s work and then throwing up roadblocks to prevent paying licensing fees or avoid having to develop their own ideas.

          That’s not the same as what Steve Jobs mean when he said he “steals” ideas like Picasso. Picasso didn’t steal other artist’s work and put his name on it. Google, Samsung et all do.

          • Somebody_Else

            “Steve Jobs’ comments about “stealing great ideas” from was the 1990s before any ideas were really patented.”

            Really? Nobody had any ideas worth getting a real patent for pre-1990?

            Do you assume that the universe didn’t exist before you were born?

            You should really do a little reading on inventions and patents. Of course, at one time you couldn’t patent business methods or software. Back in the early 80s you could only copyright software. I don’t know when that changed, but it did. And the second it did, there was a massive flood of new patent requests and grants.

            And yes, Apple has copied many other peoples designs over the years.
            Did you know they just got sued by the guys that run the Swiss Rail for stealing their well know and trademarked logo?

            Don’t make the mistake of thinking Apple (or any other large company) doesn’t copy or otherwise obtain ‘inspiration’ from others.

          • K of F

            How are Google, Motorola, Samsung stealing other’s works? I am assuming you are talking about the iphone, ipad and iOS which are laregely derivative works based on prior art.

      • J of F

        Apple’s next significant idea will be its first. Apple has made a business model out of improving other people’s ideas, refining them, putting them into pretty packages and marketing them to the flock of bipedal sheep that constitutes their base.

      • Sa'eed

        @yuuup. I swear, I had a chuckle. No, I do not work for Google or Microsoft. On the contrary, I was a die hard Apple products evangelist; I was in line midnight for the launching of the candy colored iMacs (oops, gave away my age).

        Alas, no more. My aversion to Apple has do with the shell it has become; what happened to the maverick Apple?, what happened to the heyday of R&D, not litigate & litigate?.

        Must admit, I am really glad for Google coming in to disrupt Apple/Jobs’ nefarious plans of dominating mobile computing. Imagine where we will all be with only Apple products and iOS as the only game in town. I just shudder.

    • Baerjamin

      Because no one other than Apple ever files patent lawsuits and no one else borrows or adopts others look and feel. Oh, Apple never invents anything and everyone knows that Google invented everything…

      Oh, seriously, get over yourself!

    • Did you know that BU already had to sue Samsung for EXACTLY THE SAME THING?

      Sounds like you didn’t.

      BU is hauling this patent out and suing basically everyone. Try to keep your hate in your pants.