'We must protect those discoveries'

University of Minnesota defends faculty research with intellectual property lawsuit

The University of Minnesota (UMN) has filed an intellectual property lawsuit against AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, and T-Mobile, alleging the companies' cellular networks unlawfully use technology patented by a UMN professor.

In a statement, UMN President Eric Kaler said "every day, our faculty is developing life-changing inventions and cures for the common good; that is what a great research university does," and "we must vigorously protect our faculty, those discoveries, and the overall interests of our university."

Related: Intellectual property assignment policies

UMN is one of the country's largest research universities, many of which often license faculty research to private companies as intellectual property (IP). It's currently unusual for colleges to retroactively sue private companies for IP infringement—but that trend may change as the IP landscape changes.

A new focus on IP licensing

Recent debates over patent reform have attracted the attention of universities, which have a stake in making sure their intellectual property is protected. On the one hand, some private companies, derogatively called "patent trolls," have historically used IP licensing as a primary source of revenue and have drawn criticism from companies who say their lawsuits are frivolous.

However, experts say that, when done well, IP licensing can be an important source of revenue for universities. And in congressional hearings last year, education interest groups voiced support for protecting the ability of IP-centric organizations to enforce their rights.

Also from EAB Daily Briefing: How some universities have used IP to turn research into revenues

UMN is seeking royalty payments from the cellular companies, which have not yet responded to the lawsuit. Previous lawsuits suggest UMN may have a strong case. In 2012, Carnegie Mellon University was awarded $1.17 billion in damages from Marvell Semiconductor. (That award has since grown to $1.54 billion.) According to the lawsuit, Marvell Semiconductor's microchips infringed on a patent developed at Carnegie Mellon (Mullin, Ars Technica, 11/11).

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