Appleyard Lees

David versus Goliath patent case proves the power of professors

“Apple loses patent lawsuit to University of Wisconsin, faces hefty damages”
“Apple faces £557 million patent damage claim from University of Wisconsin”
“A US jury has ordered technology giant Apple to pay more than $234m (£152m) in damages for patent infringement”

Looking back at the last month or so, you might be forgiven for thinking “more US patent litigation, more huge sums involved”. You’d be right, of course. But the press releases, and the case, give us a good opportunity to revisit some principles of the patent system that are often overlooked, not given much weight, or viewed as having little value in the modern world.

Look at who has won this case. Not the ~$1 trillion corporate superpower, but the University. We often see patent litigation between global corporates, and this is often given a lot of mainstream press coverage. However, this case shows that the relatively small player can still hold their own when they have suitable patent protection. Sure, patent protection is not cheap, but I would confidently guess that the patent filings, or the litigation costs, did not amount to £152 million. The message – patent filings have merit, even if you are in a field of very big players.

Look again at this case. The winner is not a small tech company, but is the University of Wisconsin. While admittedly a prestigious university, they are not Apple. They are not Intel. They are not Philips. They are a university. Universities are powerhouses of research and innovation, but all too often we see that research and innovation going unprotected. Of course, all patent filings will not result in a £152 million payback. Most patent filings might never see any form of litigation or cash payback. However, the case does show that patents clearly have a value, even in a crowded field of patent savvy, innovative global corporates. In a world where universities are struggling for funding, and at the same time are trying to increase their impact on the world around them, should the research and innovation not be better protected? Perhaps seek companies to collaborate with, to develop the innovation or even share patent costs? Do this before a patent filing? Either way, the research and innovation has a value, as do the patents that protect that research and innovation. Imagine if the University of Wisconsin had published the research, and had not obtained patent protection…

Of course, and for those with a keener eye in the patent profession, Apple is likely to appeal the decision, and the decision might be reversed, or the damages severely reduced. Nevertheless, much of the above would still hold true.

We provide patent services to a number of universities throughout the UK and Ireland, and these include local universities such as the University of Manchester (via UMIP, the University’s Agent for Intellectual Property Commercialisation), the University of Lancaster, the University of Leeds, Bangor University, and others. This includes working closely with those universities to provide strategic advice as well as drafting, filing, and progressing and progressing high-quality patent application.

Academic institutions and businesses need to work together to maximise the commercial and research potential of their work. The trend for universities to apply for patents has been increasing in the European Union for the last thirty years and has enormous potential for technological, life science and industrial applications, especially with the right collaborations. The University of Manchester in particular has over a 25 year history of IP commercialization that has brought many of the University’s ground-breaking research, inventions and software into the commercial world. They do this principally by attracting entrepreneurs, investors and corporate venture partners to their campus and Innovation Centre and then through engagement with academic colleagues, licensing or spinning out companies.

Patents are not just a tool for blocking competitors, or for making money for distant investors. Following the examples of the universities already actively seeking patents, protecting and commercializing intellectual property can raise funds for further research, and help to fund start up businesses of the future.

Patents have a value, even for the smaller guys, so never assume that big business bucks can buy or bully the brains.

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