Boston University sues for big bite of Apple

Claims company stole prof’s chip

By: Jessica Van Sack

Boston University is taking on the richest consumer electronics company on the planet, claiming Apple ripped off a computer engineering professor’s patented electronic semiconductor and stuffed it into the world’s most popular devices.

In a bombshell lawsuit filed yesterday in U.S. District Court of Massachusetts, the university alleges that a small electronic component patented by computer engineering professor Theodore D. Moustakas in 1997 is included in the iPhone 5, iPad, and MacBook Air.

“Defendant’s acts of infringement have caused and will continue to cause substantial and irreparable damage to the University,” BU alleges in its complaint.

At stake is a bonanza of cash, thanks to Apple’s habit of breaking sales records left and right. The company sold its 100 millionth iPad last year, and 55 million iPhone 5 units alone were reportedly sold as of May.

BU has filed a total of eight identical claims against smaller manufacturers and device-makers as well as two other high-profile companies, Samsung and Amazon, in the past year.

Though patent trolling is frowned upon, if the university can show its professor intended to make a business out of his invention, BU may have a case.

Local tech analyst Roger Kay of Endpoint Technologies Associates said he wouldn’t be surprised if a successful verdict or settlement netted BU in the realm of $75 million.

“Courts can be irrational in these cases,” Kay said. “You get these ridiculous judgments sometimes and they may think of Apple as a big, rich company that doesn’t deserve all that money.”

BU and Apple declined comment. But a person familiar with the suit said BU plans to illustrate that at least one other company pays a licensing fee to use the component in question. That could bode well for the school’s case, Kay said.

“If (the inventor) was trying to get a business going, then it will be a more sympathetic figure,” Kay said.

For all the extraordinary wealth that flows along Commonwealth Avenue from Kenmore Square, Apple is the Goliath here. Its extraordinarily deep pockets – with one of the highest market caps in the world – could keep the suit tied up in court for years.

If Kay’s prediction of a windfall pans out, perhaps there’s a little relief on the horizon for those tuition bills that are now approaching $60,000. Or perhaps in BU’s future there’s a pearly white Steve Jobs Memorial super-dorm towering high above the Charles.

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