What goes around comes around, as they say—particularly when it comes to patents. Apple is infamous for its claim on rounded corners, as well as its long wars with Samsung over smartphone patents. Despite having racked up some big wins in this litigious realm, it recently suffered a loss that could cost it nearly a billion dollars. “A jury on Tuesday decided that Apple’s A7 smartphone chip infringes a patent owned by the University of Wisconsin, and the iPhone maker could now be on the hook for as much as $862 million in damages,” said James Niccolai at Computerworld. Intel has already settled a similar case over the same patent, paying out $110 million for a license.
The patent, described in the filing as a “table based data speculation circuit for parallel processing computer,” raises a number of issues. First, it was funded at least partially by grants from federal agencies; last time anyone checked, Apple pays quite a bit in taxes in the U.S. (regardless of whether one thinks the amount is sufficient). So why do taxpayers, including corporate ones, bear the cost without reaping some of the fruit? Second, like the many other patents that cover smartphone technology, such claims make innovation nearly impossible without a team of lawyers to read through innumerable pages of technobabble to determine whether a designer is stepping on someone’s toes.
Patents ultimately amount to restrictions on the physical-property rights of others, and as such are difficult to justify. Nevertheless, the amounts of money invested in this system of intellectual property (IP) means that reform—let alone elimination—of the system is only a remote possibility. In the meantime, large organizations will continue to trade lawsuits and large sums of money, often over dubious claims. But in Apple’s case, it’s tough to be sympathetic.
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