It is said to be the biggest ever payout for a patent licensing dispute in history – if it goes through without a hitch. Marvell, the manufacturer of the chips that commonly form the basis of your hard drive controllers and today run everything from CompactFlash cards to SSDs, is being sued by Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) for using patents pertaining their hard drive noise reduction technology, a necessary requirement for data integrity to work as hard drives scaled up in size and density, without their permission. Marvell’s lawyers are currently in the process of appealing the ruling of three Federal Circuit judges in the United States, who found that CMU’s case was more convincing and deserving of a landmark payout of US $ 1.5 billion.
The patents in question are US 6,201,839 and 6,438,180. The first relates to a patent for correlation-sensitive adaptive sequence detection, which is a really fancy way of naming a method that uses sensors to figure out what data being produced by a hard drive is noise and what is actual data. The second is a method of storing and using these sequence detection techniques inside the drive’s memory for error correction and figuring out when they should be used for error correction. The work that’s gone into figuring out how noise and electrical noise affects data integrity was one of the most significant problems in the late 1990s as hard drives started scaling up to the tens of gigabytes range and exceeding 21MB/s transfer rates.
The lawyers representing CMU assert in their case that the theft of the patents without their knowledge, and the use thereof without their premission, ultimately prevented Marvell from filing for bankruptcy om the mid-2000s, as they did not have a working implementation of a chip or process that would aid in stripping away noise from the data retrieved by the hard drive over the PATA connector. Marvell was, in those days, probably the biggest supplier of hard drive controllers in the world, shipping millions of their RISC-based processors in drives from manufacturers like IBM, Seagate and Western Digital.
CMU’s final assessment on how much they are owed is calculated on $0.50 per chip sold by Marvell between 2001 and 2010. The patents in question were also licensed out to IBM, Seagate, 3M and Intel for research and product development purposes at $250,000 at some point in the early 2000s. The patents were filed in 1997 and 1998 respectively and published in 2001 and 2002. It is entirely possible that Marvell, unwilling to foot the bill to license a technology that might not even work, used the patents to influence their own take on the technology and never licensed it later as their market success grew.
This is going to be a significant case no matter what the outcome to the appeal is. It is still possibly the largest payout ever demanded from a company or individual violating patent licensing rights and may eventually influence the current discussion and thought process around patents for technology. To support Marvell, industry players like Broadcom, Dell, Google, HP and Microsoft have all filed supporting affidavits for the case, while CMU is backed by six universities across the United States.
Marvell is unlikely to be significantly affected by the fine, however – during the period that CMU claims Marvell stole the technology and used it to its benefit, the company amassed nearly US $5.2 billion in profit.