Apple, Amazon, Samsung Targeted in Boston University Patent Suits

7/3/13Follow @curtwoodward

Boston University has launched a series of patent lawsuits against Apple, Samsung, Amazon, and a long list of smaller electronics suppliers, a surprising show of legal aggression from the private university.

The series of lawsuits, which date back to October, revolve around a pair of patents for semiconductor technology that can be used to make LEDs and lasers.

Boston University—known locally as BU—says its intellectual property is being violated in products including the iPhone, iPad, Kindle Paperwhite, Kindle Fire, Galaxy Tab 2, and Chromebook laptop.

Amazon is fighting the patent claims from BU, as are most of the smaller companies named in the lawsuits. Samsung has previously declined BU’s efforts to settle the dispute, according to court filings. Apple hasn’t formally responded in court yet, but the lawsuit against it was just filed on Tuesday.

Jeff John Roberts at GigaOm first drew attention to the Apple lawsuit with this report Wednesday morning. But a look at the federal court system for cases filed by BU shows that the Apple suit is just the latest in a volley of patent infringement claims from the university.

This appears to be an uncharacteristic amount of legal activity from BU. According to federal court records, the nine patent infringement suits filed by the school since October 2012 represent the biggest burst of federal intellectual property litigation from BU in a decade or more. The private university says it has more than 33,000 students.

The patents at issue were both issued to Theodore Moustakas, an electrical and computer engineering professor who has worked at Boston University since 1987. The school’s biography of Moustakas notes that patents based on his work have been “licensed to a number of companies, including major manufactures of blue LEDs and lasers.”

The patents deal with the use of gallium nitride in semiconductors, which patents documents note is “a potential source of inexpensive and compact solid-state blue lasers.” The main patent used in the lawsuits, published in 1997, covers actual semiconductors. The other, published in 2005, describes a method of making semiconductors. One or both of these patents is claimed in each of the recent run of lawsuits from BU.

In its legal paperwork, Boston University seeks unspecified monetary damages from the companies it’s suing. And a few of the smaller defendants have already settled.

Two of those companies, both sellers of electronic equipment, agreed to refrain from selling any products that BU says are infringing on its patents. A third defendant, retail website LEDLight.com, is agreeing to pay BU a 10 percent licensing fee for each sale of a $39.99 spotlight that was the target of the university’s lawsuit.

Companies that distribute or buy Samsung products are asking the court to delay their case until BU’s lawsuit against Samsung is resolved, arguing in part that they’re being improperly dragged into a fight with the larger company.

As evidence, their lawyer submitted an e-mail from BU lawyer Michael Shore to Samsung lawyer Jeffrey Lerner:

“Samsung’s customers and distributors are next. Unless Samsung stipulates to include customer U.S. imports and sales in damages (or settles), BU is going to sue every single distributor and customer who imports [gallium nitride] infringing sensors,” it reads.

Disclosure: My spouse is employed by Boston University.

Curt Woodward is a senior editor for Xconomy based in Boston. Email: cwoodward@xconomy.com Follow @curtwoodward

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