A federal jury recently awarded Carnegie Mellon University $1.17 billion in a unanimous verdict that claimed the Marvell Technology Group had sold billions of semiconductors using technology developed at the university without permission.
The patents are related to a technology developed by professor José Moura and former PhD student Aleksandar Kavcic. The two had found a way to increase the accuracy with which hard drive circuits read data from high-speed magnetic disks. The $1.17 billion award is one of largest ever handed down in a patent infringement case. And since the jury found the infringement “willful,” the judge can award up to three times the verdict amount.
During the trial, Marvell argued that the patents were invalid because similar systems had been introduced by other researchers before the university filed for its patents. A spokesman for Marvell said it would likely appeal as well as seek lower damages from the judge in post-trial hearings, scheduled in May.
“Protection of the discoveries of our faculty and students is very important to us,” reads a statement from Carnegie Mellon. “The university’s singular success, particularly over the past 40 years, has been achieved in large measure through collaboration with industry. We value those relationships greatly.”
However, the case has raised a troubling question voiced by Mike Masnick of the website techdirt, who argues that Carnegie Mellon is acting just like Intellectual Ventures and other so-called “patent trolls,” essentially laying in wait for infringers while not actually practicing its invention. Masnick says of the Carnegie Mellon case, “CMU has never licensed this patent to anyone. It just sat on it and sued.”
He goes on the accuse CMU’s lawyers of playing up the story of how Marvell somehow “stole” these ideas from the university. Masnick links CMU’s behavior to the Bayh-Dole Act, then he lobs this bomb — putting virtually all universities in the same boat as patent trolls. “Rather than increasing their ability to do the fundamental research that is needed to help develop new technologies,” he argues, “universities have, instead, been trying to hoard patents to use to sue companies who actually innovate, usually with no knowledge of the patents held by the universities.”