Boston University has sued Apple for allegedly infringing one of its patents to make the iPhone 5, iPad, and MacBook Air. In a suit filed yesterday, the university said that Apple was illegally using its '738 patent, which covers a method of making thin gallium nitride film semiconductors that can produce blue lasers cheaply and compactly. The complaint doesn't specify precisely how Apple is using the patented method, but gallium nitrate films often end up in LED displays. Boston University argues that "[Apple's] acts of infringement have caused and will continue to cause substantial and irreparable damage to the University."
In return for using its 1997 patent, the university wants Apple to tally the profits it's derived from the alleged infringement, then hand over commensurate damages and interest on those damages. The application also includes a much more extreme, but boilerplate, request: Boston University's complaint asks for an injunction to stop Apple from selling or distributing the products it names. That doesn't mean, though, that this is remotely likely to happen. For one thing, this request appears in pretty much every patent infringement "prayer for relief," regardless of what plaintiffs are really looking for.
Boston University wants damages drawn from Apple's record profits
For another, it's unlikely to be pursued or granted. Boston University doesn't claim to be using the patent, and it almost certainly can't say it would be gaining a competitive advantage by keeping it to itself. Banning Apple's products would also run directly counter to Boston University's self-interest. Academic patents generally end up getting shopped out to companies, and Boston University filed a joint lawsuit over the '738 patent in 2006 along with a company that licensed that patent. That suit ended in a settlement, and the defendant agreed to also pay a licensing fee. Apple could well fight this latest claim, and the patent itself is set to expire at the end of next year. While this is yet another patent lawsuit involving the Cupertino computer maker, though, we're not exactly looking at another Apple v. Samsung.
Matt Macari contributed to this report.
Update: The patent expires at the end of 2014, not later as a previous version said.