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Federal Circuit Sends iPhone Patent Dispute Back for Third Damages Trial
Thursday, February 17, 2022

Considering numerous claim construction, infringement and damages issues related to patents allegedly covering Apple’s iPhones 5 and 6 series technology, a panel of the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit determined that the district court should have held a third trial on damages because the plaintiff’s expert improperly treated the asserted patents as key during his analysis of purportedly comparable license agreements. Apple Inc. v. Wi-Lan Inc., Case No. 20-2011 (Fed. Cir.) (Moore, C.J.; Bryson, Prost, JJ.)

This appeal is the latest iteration of a patent dispute between Apple and Wi-Lan that has lasted eight years and included two trials. The two patents at issue are directed to bandwidth technology that allows a “subscriber unit” rather than the “base station” to allocate bandwidth. At issue in the appeal were numerous challenges from both Apple and Wi-Lan.

The Federal Circuit rejected Apple’s challenge to the district court’s construction of “subscriber unit,” which Apple claimed was limited to “customer premises equipment [CPE]” (e.g., home routers). Although Apple pointed to parts of the specification that suggested that a CPE was a subscriber unit, the Court found that no language met the heavy burden of a clear and unmistakable redefinition of “subscriber unit.” That the sole disclosed embodiment was a CPE did not move the needle, as nothing indicated that the embodiment was limiting.

Next, the Federal Circuit affirmed the jury verdict on liability, finding that substantial evidence supported the jury’s determination that the accused iPhones contained a subscriber unit. The Court found that a jury could conclude from expert testimony that an iPhone allocates bandwidth between two separate connections—voice-over-LTE and data.

Because of the appeal, Apple may now be on the hook for additional infringement liability. The district court had granted Apple summary judgment of noninfringement based on a license agreement between Intel (the maker of Apple’s processor chips in the accused products) and Wi-Lan. According to Apple, this agreement gave Intel a license through patent expiry rather than for the license term. The Federal Circuit rejected that reading of the license between Intel and Wi-Lan, instead finding that the license extended only to pre-termination sales, not in perpetuity as Apple claimed.

Finally, the Federal Circuit found that the district court correctly ordered a new trial on damages after the first trial in the case but erred by not ordering the new trial on damages based on expert testimony admitted at the second damages trial. Regarding the first damages trial, the Court rejected Wi-Lan’s challenge to the district court’s determination that Wi-Lan’s damages expert did not appropriately tie his damages opinion to the benefits of the patented technology. With respect to the second damages trial, the Court found that Wi-Lan’s damages expert gave improper testimony because, without tying his opinion to the facts of the case, he stated that the asserted patents were the “key” drivers of the royalty rates in other license agreements he relied upon—licenses that were to a much larger patent portfolio. Without a sound basis in evidence, an expert cannot make such a determination, the Court stated. As a result, the case was remanded to the district court for a third trial, this time on damages.

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