Blog Post

Boston University sues dozens more tech firms for violating 1997 patent

Boston University raised eyebrows in July when it claimed Apple(s aapl) was infringing a nearly two-decade old patent, and asked a federal court to ban a range of popular products such as the iPhone 5 and the MacBook Air.

Despite public criticism over the lawsuit, the school has apparently doubled down on the patent strategy, filing a wave of new lawsuits last week against more than 25 tech companies, including Microsoft(s msft), Dell, BlackBerry(s rim), Motorola(s goog) and Nokia(s nok).

As with its case against Apple, Boston University claims that products like Microsoft’s Surface RT and the BlackBerry Z10 include a “gallium nitride thin film semiconductor” that one of its professors patented in 1997.

The litigation could prove controversial as the Apple lawsuit attracted scorn from investor Mark Cuban and many in the technology sector.

In response to an email inquiry about whether the aggressive assertion of old patents conflicted with universities’ research mission, a Boston University spokesman last month offered the following statement:

“Over a decade ago, Boston University developed and patented technology that is now widely used in products that include blue LEDs. As exclusive owner of that patented technology, only Boston University and those who have licensed our patent can make, use, or sell products containing that technology. […] Boston University vigorously protects the inventions, patents, and other intellectual property of its faculty and researchers.”

The idea of tapping patent portfolios is popular among universities as a way to raise revenue and burnish their image as technology centers. But the the strategy has come under questioning of late, including by the journal Nature which noted that a surfeit of intellectual property pushes schools into “unseemly partnerships” with so-called patent trolls.

Boston University’s decision to expand its patent campaign coincides with efforts by the government of Massachusetts to make the state a more attractive place for young people to start technology companies.

Here’s one of the recent complaints:

BU v Microsoft

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6 Responses to “Boston University sues dozens more tech firms for violating 1997 patent”

  1. sigh, patents and trademarks. played with those and the law years ago, and really don’t ever want to revisit that reality in this lifetime ever again. yet, an interesting article and yes, i did have to peek at the complaint. sigh. old habits.

  2. I worked on that research for thin film tech @BU_Tweets back in ’89 when we first published.
    So 7 years of R&D investment and a patent; they are hardly a patent troll nor is it a publicity stunt.
    What is the value of a patent then? @vinit44

    • Thanks for your comment, Sanat. Your research and the technology in question may be valuable, but that still may not justify BU’s lawsuits. This type of aggressive litigation, along with patent trolling, can produce a chilling effect on innovation and redirect money that would have gone to research into transaction costs.

      Patents are supposed to represent an efficiency trade-off between society and inventors — an economic monopoly in exchange for disclosing ideas. But if the standard for issuing patents is too low, or if they are harming innovation, we have to re-evaluate how well the system is working.

      Nobel-prize winning economist Gary Becker and the famous law-and-economics judge Richard Posner have some good thoughts on fixing the patent system here:

    • It IS a publicity stunt. Neither Apple nor Microsoft make devices that (allegedly) infringe the BU patent, but a chip maker might be infringing. If so, BU should be suing the chip mfr, as Carnegie Mellon has sued Marvell Semiconductor for infringing one of its patents. I’m not saying Marvell is guilty, but at least they are going after the responsible party. If CMU adopted BU’s tactics, they would be suing every user and re-seller of disk drives in the nation, which is ridiculous.

      By going after Apple, BU will force them to make their suppliers negotiate, or settle directly. This is extortion, and it’s sad that a college has lowered itself to the level of parasitic trolls.