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Did it come as something of a shock to the executives at Micron Technology when one of the leading research universities in the world, Harvard, decided to file suit against it?

The question is a little generic, since the suit filed on June 24 apparently came after Harvard had sent letters and other communications. But the more non-specific answer – which Micron hasn’t given; it has not said much about the case – may tell something about the larger issue of patents and their sometimes sweeping impact.

The case arose after Micron and another company, GlobalFoundries (which also is in Harvard’s legal sights) began using a new technology which allows for placing extremely thin metal films on other substances, which can expand the reach of computing possibilities. We don’t yet know whether Micron or GF would argue they independently came up with the process, or whether they would contend it is different from others. But Harvard said that it is the same as one developed by a team led by one of its professors, Roy G. Gordon, in the late 1990s and early in the next decade.

On becoming aware Micron was using what it thought was the same approach, Harvard said it “reached out to each of the companies outside of the context of litigation and invited them to engage in good faith licensing discussions. The companies have refused to engage and have, so far, continued their infringement without licensing rights to use the patented technology.”

Patent law, or the use of it, has been changing in the last few decades, and concerns about it have been growing as well. The popular conception of patents probably relates to the classic entrepreneurial inventor in the home basement who’s come up with a brilliant new mousetrap, and wants to make sure someone else doesn’t steal his great idea. Or, at least, that he can benefit from it. The idea is to encourage invention, and also to encourage the use of the invention to benefit society. Many patents are now held by large organizations, developed by people who work for them.

Harvard’s statement on the new lawsuit said it “recognizes that the public’s interest may be best served in some circumstances by the application of legal protection to the innovations of Harvard inventors so that these technologies may be developed into useful products.” If reading that makes you feel like you’ve looped around the curves of a pretzel, you may not be alone.

Also this: “The Gordon laboratory’s research was supported in part by the National Science Foundation. The Bayh-Dole Act of 1980, a federal law, enables universities to hold patents on federally funded research and to participate in technology transfer activities that help ensure inventions become useful products that benefit society. Harvard invests significant resources into research infrastructure and activities, technology development, and the cost of filing and maintaining patents.”

A question may be coming to mind, which Harvard also usefully posed in its statement: “If Harvard intends groundbreaking technologies to make an impact in the world, why file suit against companies that are making use of the technology?” The answer was that unlicensed use of the technology “can devalue the contributions and efforts of researchers who have often devoted their careers to solving important technological challenges.”

In a purely financial way, maybe. But that seems to be the limits of what much of patent law is about these days. The forthcoming legal replies from Micron will be worth watching.

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