The technology behind the popular Mac features Spotlight and Time Machine may have been invented not in Silicon Valley, but in New Haven — and the Yale researchers who say they invented it want their due.
Mirror Worlds, a computer software company that spun off from Yale’s Department of Computer Science in 1996, is suing Apple Inc. for violating its patents. In court documents, Apple’s lawyers allege the company has no knowledge of Mirror Worlds’ claim to have invented the contested technology.
Founded by Yale computer science professor David Gelernter and then-doctoral student Eric Freeman, Mirror Worlds claims to have invented a method of organizing computer files based on when they were created, not where they are stored. Though Freeman and Gelernter patented their innovation in December 1999, the rights to the technology changed hands at least 10 times over nine years.
While the case has been brewing since March 2008, the trial is likely to begin, in Tyler, Texas, within the next two weeks, Gelernter said in an e-mail. He declined to comment further because he is under subpoena.
In a March interview with Big Think, a technology blog, Gelernter said Apple’s alleged theft of Mirror Worlds’ technology made him personally angry.
“[It’s] not because of the money, but because of the deliberate failure to acknowledge work that we would have made freely available as academics,” Gelernter said. “We’d like to see credit where credit is due.”
Gelernter said Apple’s technologies that use the file organizing system include Spotlight, which allows users to search for files based on content, not location, and Time Machine, which archives information by creation date.
In the original complaint filed against Apple, Mirror Worlds said it was “the sole owner of all rights” to the file organizing system and that Apple’s infringement on these rights has been “willful and deliberate” and harmful to Mirror Worlds’ business.
Mirror Worlds is requesting damages of an amount that will be set by the judge.
Apple’s press office and trial lawyers did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Even if Mirror Worlds does win its lawsuit against the California-based computer giant, Yale will not stand to gain from any damages awarded, said Diane Harmon, the intellectual property administration director at Yale’s Office of Cooperative Research, which licenses technology created by University researchers.
While Harmon declined to discuss the financial terms of the transaction, she said Yale sold all rights, titles and interest on the file organizing system to Mirror Worlds in January 2000. Yale earns about $10 to $20 million each year from products invented in its laboratories that it then licenses and sells to new businesses.
Three legal experts interviewed said Mirror Worlds likely decided to file its complaint in the Eastern District of Texas because it has a favorable body of laws for intellectual property rights and a quick turnover of cases, said Delphine James, a Houston-based intellectual property rights lawyer.
Gelernter said the trial judge has limited each side of the lawsuit to about 12 hours of testimony so the trials can finish fairly quickly.
A recent study published by Stanford law professor Mark Lemley shows that in patent cases that have gone to trial in the Eastern District since 2000, the plantiffs won more than 40 percent of the time, compared to a national average of 32.5 percent.