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Apple, Amazon, Microsoft & More Settle Lawsuits With Boston University 129

Posted by samzenpus
from the stop-using-my-stuff dept.
curtwoodward writes "Boston University hadn't been very aggressive with intellectual property lawsuits in the past. But that changed in 2012, when the school began suing the biggest names in consumer tech, alleging infringement of a patent on blue LEDs — a patent that, no coincidence, is set to expire at the end of 2014. As of today, about 25 big tech names have now settled the lawsuits, using 'defensive' patent firm RPX. A dozen or so more defendants are probably headed that way. And BU is no longer a quiet patent holder."
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Apple, Amazon, Microsoft & More Settle Lawsuits With Boston University

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  • by gwstuff (2067112) on Wednesday January 15, 2014 @10:03PM (#45972053)

    For messing with us in the opening scene of The Social Network.

  • Oh, I get it. They're blue. That's totally non-obvious.

    • by bunratty (545641) on Wednesday January 15, 2014 @10:10PM (#45972123)
      The patent isn't on the mere idea of blue LEDs, but on how precisely to make a particlar blue LED, which was not obvious. Mere ideas cannot be patented, contrary to what many Slashdot posters would like you to believe.
      • by tomhath (637240) on Wednesday January 15, 2014 @10:35PM (#45972253)

        Mere ideas cannot be patented, contrary to what many Slashdot posters would like you to believe

        You mean someone couldn't patent an idea like buying something by clicking on a button? Oh wait...

      • by zixxt (1547061)

        Mere ideas cannot be patented, contrary to what many Slashdot posters would like you to believe.

        Cant tell if serious or funny.

      • by arbiter1 (1204146)
        Ask apple that question about patenting idea's, they have a patent on phones of rounded rectangle design.
        • There's a difference between design patents and utility patents.

        • by zieroh (307208)

          It's really sad that allegedly intelligent people have bought into that narrative hook, line, and sinker. If you were actually smart, you'd take the time to read up on the difference between design and utility patents so as to form an opinion of your own, instead of the one that has been planted in your head by someone else. Then -- maybe, possibly -- you'd realize that the people who planted the original idea in your head actually had an agenda, something which you probably should have recognized to begin

      • Mere ideas cannot be patented, contrary to what many Slashdot posters would like you to believe

        Don't tell us, tell the USPTO

    • by Yi Ding (635572)
      Making the LEDs blue is actually a non-trivial bit of engineering. The patent isn't about LEDs being blue, it's the engineering behind making them blue. This is a totally valid thing to patent, just like the hybrid engine patents Toyota has.
      • by Yi Ding (635572) <yi.studentindebt@com> on Wednesday January 15, 2014 @10:16PM (#45972147)

        More info: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Light-emitting_diode#The_blue_and_white_LED [wikipedia.org]

        The guy who made the first blue LED won a 1.3 million dollar prize. I'm assuming the reason BU is able to collect royalties is that their method is the one that's being used commercially. Look at the description in wikipedia: Does p-doping Indium Galium Nitride seem like a trivial process?

        • by dacut (243842) on Thursday January 16, 2014 @01:15AM (#45973129)

          Does p-doping Indium Gallium Nitride seem like a trivial process?

          It's trivial with the right equipment and materials. Figuring out that you need to p-dope IGN to make an LED, on the other hand...

          Reminds me of the story about the fancy car which, no matter what the shop mechanics tried, wouldn't start. So they call in an old mechanic buddy who had retired a few years ago to come take a look. He studies the engine carefully, making a note of the various fluid levels and temperatures as well as the sounds made by the engine. After going at it for a few minutes, he takes a bit of chalk, marks a spot on the engine, and then hits it with his hammer. With that, the engine roared to life.

          He then handed the customer a bill for $100. Aghast, the customer replies, "I'm not paying you $100 for hitting the engine with a hammer!"

          The old mechanic replies, "Hitting the engine was free. Knowing where to hit it is $100."

          • by Anonymous Coward

            The old mechanic replies, "Hitting the engine was free. Knowing where to hit it is $100."

            Don't be too quick to laugh.

            This kind of thing happens all the time with debugging of legacy software.

            Brutal hours of agonizing testing and debugging ultimately result in, oh, say changing an off-by-one error in an index somewhere...

        • by ChrisMaple (607946) on Thursday January 16, 2014 @02:03AM (#45973393)

          The guy who made the first blue LED won a 1.3 million dollar prize.

          Long before modern efficient blue LEDs were invented there were blue LEDs made by various firms, including silicon carbide LEDs commercialized by Cree in 1989 and tinkered with by others, and even a silicon-based blue LED from Sony. They were inefficient and many of them were expensive, so they weren't popular. The first observation of blue LED action was made in 1923, before anyone understood what was happening. In the late 1960s some blue silicon carbide LEDs were deliberately developed. In the early 1970s, RCA made (but never commercialized) blue and violet GaN LEDs. http://www.sslighting.net/news/features/maruska_blue_led_history.pdf [sslighting.net]

    • by Adriax (746043) on Wednesday January 15, 2014 @10:20PM (#45972167)

      Oh I know, crazy huh? How could they let this patent get by with the clearly obvious prior art of all those blue LEDs that helped light up gadgets in the 80s.

      Not like every consumer product featuring LEDs prior to 1994 or so was using red, green, yellow, and amber because depositing the gallium mix required for the blue spectrum bandgap could only be done on a ruby substrate at the time due to the normal process destroying a silicon substrate, thereby making blue LEDs insanely expensive.

      • by richlv (778496)

        did they sue at the time when they saw the first blue leds or did they wait ?

        • This is just the latest round of lawsuits on this I assume they are trying to get as much cash as possible before it expires. I went to BU for my undergrad (even took solid state physics from Theodore Moustakas) and there was a similar undisclosed settlement in 2001-2002 about the same manufacturing process. The patent is not so much about having a blue LED but having a economical way to manufacture them on a mass scale.
        • Doesn't matter. You make use of a blue LED technology you must make sure that you license the patent. The date of expiration doesn't matter either for violations that occur during the term of the patent. The recent newegg case about SSL was for past violations of an expired patent.
          • by richlv (778496)

            sure, i was more thinking of them intentionally sitting on it and waiting for market use to increase

        • That's what I was wondering, too. If the patents expire in 2015, then the patents were filed in 1995. If they didn't start lawsuits until 2012, why doesn't laches [wikipedia.org] apply? They didn't sue for 17 years. It's not fair that they start now.

          Of course, none of these suits has actually gone to trial, it appears.

  • more is coming (Score:5, Insightful)

    by wbr1 (2538558) on Wednesday January 15, 2014 @10:06PM (#45972085)
    Our college system trolls students with unneeded but course required new book editions. It trolls students with massive debt. It trolls science with god knows how many crap papers just became there is an constant push to publish, publish, publish. Why shouldn't they troll patents too?

    The murican postsecondary education system, the troll under the bridge to your future.

    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by Anonymous Coward

      What did you think would happen if you hit the American post-secondary education system with massive, across the board budget cuts?

      American colleges used to put out their research for (effectively) free to the public and corporations benefited HUGELY. Now its time to pay the piper and hes looking to collect interest.

      • by ackthpt (218170)

        What did you think would happen if you hit the American post-secondary education system with massive, across the board budget cuts?

        American colleges used to put out their research for (effectively) free to the public and corporations benefited HUGELY. Now its time to pay the piper and hes looking to collect interest.

        Boston U is Private.

        • by Uberbah (647458)

          Boston U is Private.

          Distinction without much of a difference. Private schools get federal grant money, and it's not uncommon for public universities to cost more than private ones. Not because of the invisible hand, but because of the 30 year bipartisan war on the public sector.

      • by Anonymous Coward

        If universities are so hurt by budget cuts, maybe they should consider scaling back some of their sports programs. Have you seen the size of some of the football stadiums and training facilities these schools have? I thought universities were for education.

        • Have you any idea how much revenue football programs bring in to colleges, both directly through ticket and television rights sales, and indirectly as part of begging alumni for funds?
        • by Jon_S (15368)

          BU cancelled their football program in 1997 because it cost too much.

      • Isn't it better if the Evil Big Corporations who use the results of research pay for the research via patent licenses than the tax payer pays?

        Suppose I'm a government bureaucrat. I need to decide who gets grants and who does not. Now with most academic fields it's actually non trivial to decide if a particular piece of research is actually worth anything. So I end up doing things like handing out cash to my alma mater, my favourite area, or who pays me off. This system doesn't really work very well because

    • by ackthpt (218170)

      Time to rethink any plans to endow such universities with any kind of scholarships or research partnerships.

    • If researchers discover a cool new technology, I see no issues with them licensing it out, and using the profits to do more research. In this case, you have a clear benefit to society, and it's not patent trolling.

      Not that the education system doesn't have issues, but I don't see the issue in this case.

  • by Yi Ding (635572) <yi.studentindebt@com> on Wednesday January 15, 2014 @10:12PM (#45972125)
    This is the way the patent system is supposed to work. The university creates a useful product based on a real technology advance, patents the idea, and then when it becomes ubiquitous the university is able to calculate the worth of the technology and gets large firms to license appropriately. This is completely different from software patents where it's mostly "I did it first, haha."
    • by penix1 (722987) on Wednesday January 15, 2014 @10:27PM (#45972213) Homepage

      Fine then... If this is the way it is supposed to work then there is no further reason to subsidize the university with tax dollars since they have the ability to develop these valuable patent portfolios. The knife should work both ways. Either they fund research using their patent portfolio or tax dollars but not both.

      • by Anonymous Coward

        They already have. Government budget cuts after the economy collapsed ~3 years ago have already hit university subsidies. Wanna see more patent lawsuits? Cut the government subsidies some more. Go ahead. See what happens.

      • by Anonymous Coward

        Either they fund research using their patent portfolio or tax dollars but not both.

        Because...? That's like saying either your job or your wife's job should fund your family's expenses, but not both.

        There are no universities left, public or private, whose research programs are adequately funded by tax dollars, and so the money they receive must be supplemented by other means. That includes industry-sponsored research, donations, investment returns on endowment, and licensing revenue. What reason do you have to prohibit patent licensing?

        University R&D creates significant advances in

        • by penix1 (722987)

          Who said I am prohibiting patent licensing? I am prohibiting the use of tax dollars AND patent licensing for the same research. Why should the tax payer fund something they are going to privatize?

      • by gtall (79522)

        What you are missing is the research the scientists do at a university keeps the university's course work up to date and cutting edge. That translates into better prepared students. If universities are not leading research, the government and companies cannot (in the former) and will not (in the latter) do anything to keep the universities current. Hell, right now companies cannot even be arsed to train anyone, they want a ready-made widget masquerading as a person they can immediate fit into their profit

    • by Anonymous Coward

      Except that they waited 16 years to protect their patent...

    • They're not supposed to wait until it becomes ubiquitous - if it does, then it seems to me like it fails the obviousness test for the patent if they were able to independently derive it. Licensing should be arranged before, or as soon as possible after, the products come to market.
      • There are other companies that did the same thing. Look at the patent on the LZW compression technique in the .GIF format. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Graphics_Interchange_Format [wikipedia.org]

        Unisys waited almost 10 years until .GIF files were the ubiquitous picture format on the web, THEN they started suing for patent infringement. The led to the .PNG file format being developed, but everyone was still mad at Unisys for waiting so long.

        ~~
    • by sjames (1099) on Thursday January 16, 2014 @12:48AM (#45973011) Homepage

      In this case, I have no problem with the patent being issued. The problem I have is with who gets sued.

      I'll bet Apple, Amazon, and Microsoft did NOT order Blue LEDs using BU's patent. They ordered blue LEDs and had no idea what tech was used to manufacture them. The manufacturer that actually used BU's tech to make the LEDs is the legitimate target of a suit.

      • Nor should they care how it's made. Can you imagine, for every single resister, capacitor, LED, chip, you have to check how it's made and ensure they have the proper licenses or patents? That would be ridiculous.
    • by tlhIngan (30335)

      This is the way the patent system is supposed to work. The university creates a useful product based on a real technology advance, patents the idea, and then when it becomes ubiquitous the university is able to calculate the worth of the technology and gets large firms to license appropriately. This is completely different from software patents where it's mostly "I did it first, haha."

      Except well, Apple, Microsoft, etc., aren't using the patented technology in question. They bought parts that did, under the

  • must have been going a little soft. Had to stuff the mattress I suppose.
  • I thought that if you don't assert your patent from day one, then you can't cry foul later on. How long have they been sitting on this thing, only to turn around and start suing everyone after the process became wide spread.

    While BU may be on better ground, and may put the money to better use than some scum sucking patent troll, it still strikes me as trollish behaviour.

    • by richlv (778496)

      i believe that works like this with trademarks, unfortunately not with patents.

    • by bloodhawk (813939)
      that is the fucked up patent system for you. It is trademarks that you have to protect from day one otherwise you can't cry foul later. It is definitely horribly trollish behaviour from BU and is yet another perfect example of the patent system needing reform. Needs to be a far tighter timeframe in which a patent owner must make known their intention to assert patent infringement otherwise they should lose the right to make such a claim.
    • by russotto (537200)

      It appears this might be all about a Samsung lawsuit they've been involved in for some time. The other companies don't make the allegedly infringing devices, but they do import them, so BU decided to put some pressure on Samsung by suing the customers.

    • I thought that if you don't assert your patent from day one, then you can't cry foul later on. How long have they been sitting on this thing, only to turn around and start suing everyone after the process became wide spread.

      That is mostly true. You aren't allowed to wait to tell someone that they infringe your patent just to get more damages. If you do (and you get caught), then you can only get money for the time up until you figured out that they were infringing.

      Having said that, I don't know the details of this case, so I don't know how that rule might apply.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday January 15, 2014 @10:49PM (#45972347)

    I guess I'm a bit old fashioned, but I always had concieved of universities as being places where the pursuit of learning and new knowledge were ends unto themselves. Patents and "monitizing" of the university system seem to me to corrupt the purity of knowledge and education for their own sakes, replacing those abstract goals with concerns like "how much money will that research be worth" and "will teaching those classes result in higher wages for our graduates (and hence more and larger donations)". Research with intent to commercialize is more properly conducted by commercial research labs. Instead we seem to have decided to shut down the big ones and offload that work to the university system, with a complete lack of concern or interest in the cultural consequences for higher education.

    I think we need to add another four years on to our high school education programs, or make some other arrangements so that universities can return to their role of being pure research and learning institutions whose deliberate and specific intent is to foster research and learning without concern for whether it can be monitized. We should be adjusting our "standard" or "high school degree" education standards so that the majority of employment opportunities available in the work force can be successfully handled by those graduates. "Higher" education should not, by definition, be a general requirement for virtually all worthwhile employment in this country.

    Undoubtely this view is somewhat impractical, and it is a fair point that universities cost money to run and maintain, but the support of the altruistic pursuit of knowledge is one goal for which I will cheerfully, even eagerly, pay more taxes. I have a deeply held conviction that some things are more important than money, and one of the measures of merit by which civilizations shoudl be judged is how they support those pursuits - if we can't look at anything as fundamental as learning about the world around us without wondering how we can "monitize" what we learn, we are diminished as a civilization.

    Boston University is most likely on fairly solid grounds with this patent (unlike, say, most software patents) and within their legal rights to act in this fashion, but I view it as a sad commentary on our society that things have reached the point where a university either needs to or wants to take advantage of a mechanism like patents, which fundamentally restrict the application of knowledge in the first place.

    • put more into tech / trades schools / apprenticeship to take the load off universities.

      Extend high school like costs to students to community college level with 1/2 year tech / trades like plans and make so that universities MUST TAKE ALL community college credits and if they really want you to retake classes / take our class that is just about the same then it must be free of change.

      I think Universitys are somewhat lowering standards due to the student loan system and other stuff.

      Also Universitys are tryin

    • by gtall (79522)

      Part of the blame for the current focus on unis asking for patent money is that is how research is increasingly funded. Who is funding basic research anymore? Even the Federal Government has fell victim to the MBA Pighead Payground where every thing must be costed and an immediate return on investment is required...which is convenient for the MBA Pigs, they only feed at the trough, they are not tasked with filling the trough.

      And the sainted American public is also to blame. They seem to revel in a culture o

    • by dkleinsc (563838)

      Patents and "monitizing" of the university system seem to me to corrupt the purity of knowledge and education for their own sakes, replacing those abstract goals with concerns like "how much money will that research be worth" and "will teaching those classes result in higher wages for our graduates (and hence more and larger donations)".

      On the other hand, classrooms, professors, laboratories, etc cost money, and universities are constantly looking for ways to get their hands on some. Their options are limited:
      - Foundations and other granting organizations want a ROI
      - Government funding is drying up as fast as Republicans can make it happen (whether you agree or disagree with that policy, that's the Republican Party position on education funding, and there's no sense in pretending otherwise)
      - Alumni are mostly broke
      - Tuition is already skyr

  • by saccade.com (771661) on Wednesday January 15, 2014 @11:40PM (#45972671) Homepage Journal
    I'm puzzled. The patent (at least the one cited in the article) details a very specific method for creating the crystals in LEDs. I can see BU going after various LED manufacturers (Cree, Philips, Panasonic, etc.). But Apple? Microsoft? Those companies re-sell those components, they don't manufacture them.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward

      I'm puzzled. The patent (at least the one cited in the article) details a very specific method for creating the crystals in LEDs. I can see BU going after various LED manufacturers (Cree, Philips, Panasonic, etc.). But Apple? Microsoft? Those companies re-sell those components, they don't manufacture them.

      The LEDs were most likely manufactured in China by a company that did not license the technology. They were then incorporated into other products in China. Those products were then imported to the US.

      Under that particular set of circumstances, the company that imports the product is responsible for the patent infringement.

    • by lobotomy (26260)
      Exactly what I was thinking.Could they come after me if I buy a bag of blue LEDs and make things with them?
    • by Misagon (1135)

      Blue LEDs contain so much energy that they hurt the eyes .. and they look really tacky.
      Would it not be right that it is the companies that put the blue LEDs into products that should be punished for doing so? ;)

  • Completely ridiculous to see taxpayer-funded research being patented. If public funds are being spent on research (as they are at BU, even though it's a "private" school), then the results of this research should be released into the public domain.
    • by Anonymous Coward

      Boston University is a private research organization. They happen to run a PRIVATE educational program as well.

      So by default, you should assume it wasn't funded with public money, those it is not impossible that it was. It is not a 'publicly funded university' in the sense that its primary funds are not from tax dollars provided by the state.

      Patents are EXACTLY INTENDED to work for companies like BU (assuming BU did the actual research or paid an appropriate price for the research/patent at their own risk

  • Bullsh*t (Score:5, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday January 16, 2014 @02:03AM (#45973389)

    1. I have a PhD in GaN LEDs, and work at an LED company
    2. I've worked with "the guy" who won that $1.3M prize for inventing the GaN LED
    3. I've worked on large, multi institutions government funded GaN-based projects that Moustakas was also involved on, I am very framiliar with the last 2.5 decades of his research in particular
    4. I am very familiar with both the devices and the IP of the field in genearl since I have a few of these kinds of patents

    This lawsuit makes no sense. First of all many if not most of the companies don't manufacture any GaN based LEDs. Second of all, that patent covers a technique that no one uses in commercial GaN LEDs. Literally no one. That patent very specifically covers GaN crystal growth by MBE (molecular beam epitaxy). Every single GaN LED company (Nichia, Cree, Soraa, etc.) uses MOCVD (Metal organic chemical vapor deposition) techniques. The claims are of course quite cryptic and difficult to determine their entire implication, but from what I can one of the mains things he is claiming to patent is any GaN structure grown on a foreign substrate with a low temperature poly-crystalline layer. Nearly all commercial LEDs are grown on sapphire of SiC with the use of some kind of low temperature poly-crystalline buffer layer. However there is lots of prior art on this (notice the dates!)

    http://jjap.jsap.jp/link?JJAP/30/L1705/

    http://scitation.aip.org/content/aip/journal/apl/48/5/10.1063/1.96549

    He also tries to discuss the potential dopant atoms, none of the ones that are mentioned are currently used. Of course I'm not sure exactly which claim their lawsuits are hinging on, but all of the meaningful claims in there are covered by prior art (journal publications) and/or better, old, stronger patents.

    tl;dr this patent is bullshit, it covers things that have prior art, or aren't useful

  • A university that teaches you things that you can't learn.

    Reality can be more funny than Soviet Russia jokes.

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