Apple Challenges Big Award Over Patents

Jeanne C. Fromer in The New York Times, October 04, 2010

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By MIGUEL HELFT and JOHN SCHWARTZ

Apple is challenging a jury verdict that could force it to pay as much as $625.5 million to a company founded by David Gelernter, a Yale computer science professor, for infringing three patents related to how files are displayed on the iPod, the iPhone and Macintosh computers.

A federal jury in Tyler, Tex., on Friday awarded the company, Mirror Worlds, $208.5 million in damages for each of the patents infringed. They include a patent related to Cover Flow, a central feature of Apple’s computers and mobile devices that allows users to scroll through album covers, photos and other files.

The federal judge overseeing the case has yet to formally enter the verdict. In an emergency motion filed on Sunday, Apple asked the judge to stay the verdict because of a series of “outstanding issues” with two of the three patents it was found to have willfully infringed. Apple also said that it would be wrong for the court to award the plaintiff the full judgment for each of the patents, as it would amount to “triple dipping.”

If Mirror Worlds is granted the full amount by the court, it would be one of the largest patent awards in United States history. The case was heard before Federal District Judge Leonard E. Davis in the Eastern District of Texas, a locale favored by plaintiffs in patent cases because of the generosity of the jury awards.

Apple said that the court should consider its challenge “in light of counsel for Mirror Worlds’ erroneous and objectionable suggestion that, among other things, damages should be cumulative while at the same time suggesting that Mirror Worlds was not ‘triple dipping.’ ”

Professor Gelernter, a renowned technology pioneer, sustained serious injuries to his right hand and eye from an explosive package sent to him in 1993 by Theodore Kaczynski, known as the Unabomber.

Mirror Worlds sued Apple in 2008 over the patents. In addition to Cover Flow, the case focused on features of the Mac called Spotlight, which allows users to search their hard drive, and Time Machine, which performs automatic backups.

“The verdict is a clear victory for David and his visionary ideas,” said Joseph Diamante, a lawyer for Mirror Worlds.

Apple declined to comment.

John F. Duffy, a professor at George Washington University Law School and an expert on patent law, said he was surprised by the size of the verdict, but even more by the finding of willful infringement. “That’s a little jarring,” he said.

Most juries find that infringement is unintentional. A finding that a defendant knew of a patent and decided to create a similar product anyway is rarer, and patent law provides greater penalties for that, Professor Duffy said, including treble damages in some cases.

Jeanne C. Fromer, an associate professor of law at Fordham Law School in New York, said that while the verdict was “clearly huge,” it concerned an important part of what gave Apple products a unique look and feel.

Professor Fromer said that the Eastern District of Texas has a reputation for being generous even to so-called patent trolls, who hold on to patents that they have not commercialized in order to demand money from another company’s success. But she said that Professor Gelernter does not fit that profile. “This is a very respectable computer scientist attacking a very visible and core technology of Apple,” she said.