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Is WARF trolling Apple?

A taxpayer funded, public university won a patent dispute against Apple, Oct. 13, bringing to light the influence governmental entities have over the U.S. Patent system.

According to Rueters, the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (which news outlets have been referring to as WARF), sued Apple,

in January 2014 alleging infringement of its 1998 patent for improving chip efficiency. The jury was considering whether Apple’s A7, A8 and A8X processors, found in the iPhone 5s, 6 and 6 Plus, as well as several versions of the iPad, violate the patent.

What everybody is talking about is the fact that WARF, an extension of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, won the suit. The court found Apple liable to WARF for $400 million. What has attracted less attention, however, is power these public universities have over patents.

For instance, last year a movement was underfoot to pass something called the Innovation Act. Lawmakers designed the act to target patent trolls. Ultimately, the act vanished from the national conversation when Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) took the reform “off the agenda.” At the time, (May of 2014), the Electronic Frontier Foundation argued that Leahy killed the Act in order,

to please the pharmaceutical, biotech, and university lobbies that are hardly the victims of patent trolls anyway.

Public Universities have also been accused of aiding and abetting patent trolls. In fact, Daniel Engber, writing for Slate in 2014,  compared Universities to Patent Trolls, writing that,

Universities and patent trolls have some major traits in common: Both make money off of legal rights; both let other businesses implement ideas and then pinch a portion of the revenue; both purport to bring that money back to those innovators who most deserve it. Looked at from a distance, and with squinted eyes, a school might seem to be a patent troll itself—and that resemblance is growing stronger.

At the heart of Engber’s argument is that Universities have the resources to support and fund research that ultimately leads to inventions and thus, patents. With so many patents coming from these sources, the risk of overly broad or exploitable patents begins to emerge. In other words, more patents mean more potential for patent abuse (read patent trolls).

Whether or not WARF is trolling Apple is open to debate. But the case and its outcome does raise at least one question: What was The University of Madison-Wisconsin planning to do with the patent? A press release from the university praises the court’s holding, but makes no mention of how its technology, patented in 1998, was benefiting society. The Capital Times, a Madison-based, online news source, goes so far as to ask whether WARF is in fact a patent troll. Back in 2012, Business Insider not only called WARF a patent troll, but listed it as one “Tech’s 8 Most Fearsome ‘Patent Trolls.’”  The complaint WARF files speaks only of the technology’s application, not of its use.