reader comments 6
Share this story
Many of the biggest legal disputes in technology relate to “intellectual property,” a broad term used for laws relating to everything from copyrights to patents, trademarks to trade secrets.
This year saw significant changes in the copyright and patent landscapes. “Patent trolls” who sue technologists for fun and profit got smacked down by courts more often—and harder—than ever before.
At the same time, universities were filing patent lawsuits at an increased rate, and often winning.In the copyright realm, the Oracle v.
Google trial dominated the spring.
A jury was left to decide the murky rules about when using an API could be “fair use.” That legal uncertainty led to the two tech giants clashing over the ethics of each others’ business practices and the history of the smartphone industry.
In two very different cases in 2016, copyright issues led to criminal charges being filed. US authorities are seeking to extradite and put on trial a man named Artem Vaulin, who they say made $16 million annually by running a massive online storehouse of pirated films and songs.
And more than three years after they were condemned by a federal judge, lawyers behind a vast array of copyright lawsuits, a firm known as Prenda Law, were arrested and accused of fraud. Here’s a look back at 2016’s most dramatic IP cases.
Graphiq CEO Kevin O’Connor and former director of operations Danny Seigle.
Graphiq (formerly FindTheBest) became the first company to win attorneys’ fees in a patent case under the Supreme Court’s new Octane Fitness standard.
An appeals court approved the fee award in January 2016. Patent trolls continued to face stiff fines throughout 2016. eDekka, the most litigious patent company just a year ago, collapsed and dropped its appeal after being hit with fees in East Texas.
Carnegie Mellon University ended a prolonged patent battle with Marvell Technology in February, with Marvell agreeing to pay a $750 million settlement—the largest payout ever for a patent related to computer science. Pictured here is CMU Professor José Moura, inventor on the two patents in the case.
An image explaining one of two patents owned by Carnegie Mellon University, which describe a method of reducing noise when reading data from hard disks.
The patents were used by CMU to sue Marvell Technology. Universities have increasingly been willing to become plaintiffs in high-stakes patent lawsuits, and are sometimes partnering with professional patent enforcement companies to do so.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation launched a “reclaim invention” campaign in June 2016, seeking to pressure universities not to partner with such “patent trolls.”
Since the US Supreme Court’s 2014 Alice v.
CLS Bank decision, it’s been easier to get software patents thrown out of court. Until this year, the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit had only upheld software patents in one post-Alice case.
But in 2016, the Federal Circuit gave approval to software patents in three more cases.
The image above is pulled from the McRo v.
Bandai Namco Games opinion.
A Federal Circuit panel said McRo’s digital animation patents could survive, rejecting arguments from public interest groups like EFF that McRo was being allowed to essentially patent mathematics.
In May, a second jury trial between Oracle and Google over whether the Android operating system violated Java copyrights ended with a second resounding win for Google.
The testimony of Jonathan Schwartz, former president of Sun MicroSystems, loomed large in the case.
Schwartz testified that he had no problem with Android, since Google had followed the rules around Java intellectual property that Sun had established.
Noah Berger/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Oracle attorneys tried to sway the jury by painting former Sun Microsystems president Jonathan Schwartz as a hypocrite, who praised Google in public but privately decried its licensing practices.
It didn’t work.
Above is a slide from Oracle’s closing argument.
In June, a Los Angeles federal jury considered whether or not Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” was ripped off from a song by psychedelic rock band Spirit.
The jury found in Led Zeppelin’s favor, quelling some fears that the music industry may continue to be plagued with copyright lawsuits over similar-sounding songs.
The case followed a high-profile 2015 trial in which a jury found that the hit song “Blurred Lines” infringed the copyright of Marvin Gaye’s “Got to Give it Up.”
In July, US prosecutors charged Artem Vaulin, a 30-year-old Ukrainian man, with criminal copyright infringement for running the popular website KickAssTorrents.
Vaulin was arrested and is being held in Poland awaiting extradition.
It’s the highest profile criminal copyright case since the US charged Kim Dotcom—who’s still living in New Zealand, where he’s desperately hoping to avoid extradition.
Above is a screenshot of the now-shuttered torrent website.
On July 21, the Electronic Frontier Foundation filed a lawsuit that’s been a long time coming.
EFF claims that the DMCA’s ban on circumventing digital locks violates the First Amendment.
Digital locks may need to be sidestepped “in order to create a running critical commentary on… a political debate, sporting event, or movie,” all legitimate activities that should be protected by fair use, EFF argues.
The government has asked for the case to be dismissed, and the matter is awaiting a judge’s decision. Pictured above is EFF client Andrew “bunnie” Huang, who wants to market a product for editing HD television signals, but is hampered by copyright limitations he believes are unconstitutional.
Record label EMI sued MP3tunes, an early music locker service, in 2007, along with its founder Michael Robertson, pictured above in a 2006 photo.
The litigation caused MP3tunes to go bankrupt in 2012, but Robertson kept fighting his battle in court.
In October 2016, the 2nd Circuit appeals court upheld and even expanded EMI’s court win—a disastrous result for Robertson and MP3tunes.
Today, cloud music services are thriving.
But the MP3tunes precedent shows that innovators who cross the music industry still must risk paying a heavy price.
In an opinion published December 6, the US Supreme Court stopped Apple from collecting $399 million in patent infringement damages from Samsung over iPhone-related design patents.
The high court held that the lower court erred when it allowed Apple to automatically collect “lost profits” damages based on the entire value of a phone.
It was the first time in more than a century that the Supreme Court took a case involving design patents. Pictured above is one of the infringed patents, D618,677, describing a black rectangle with rounded corners.
The lawyers behind Prenda Law were denounced in 2013 by a federal judge who called them a “porno-trolling collective” that had abused federal courts.
In December 2016, two of those lawyers, John Steele and Paul Hansmeier, were arrested and charged with fraud and perjury. Pictured above is John Steele’s banner advertisement from his old firm, which practiced family law.
Two band members of 60’s rock band The Turtles, pictured above, have turned the once-obscure issue of pre-1972 songs into a hot copyright issue.
The Turtles sued Sirius XM and Pandora, demanding royalties for their old sound recordings, which are not protected by federal law.
Sirius and Pandora lost key legal battles in 2015, and Sirius paid out a $210 million settlement to record labels.
But the Turtles case went on, and on Dec. 21, 2016 the New York Court of Appeals handed a big victory to Sirius, saying that the state’s common law offered no copyright protection for pre-1972 recordings.
The decision may be influential in other states.
Nokia and Apple fought each other over smartphone patents between 2009 and 2011, but settled their case. Nokia has backed out out of the smartphone business, but is still licensing its patents, so the two companies are back at war. Nokia has sued Apple over patents in 11 different countries. Meanwhile, Apple has filed an antitrust lawsuit against Nokia, accusing the Finnish firm of working together with “patent-assertion entities”—a.k.a. patent trolls—to “maximize the royalties that can be extracted from product companies.”