Monday May 18, 2009

Coming up for air

I've had a number of people inquire when I will write about this. At this point, all I can say is that it has been a fascinating experience (and an exhausting number of months). For those of you who want to know more, here's where you can find the preliminary proxy. I will write more as we get further along in the process, but for now....

Lost in all the excitement about the Oracle announcement was some wonderful news relating to a litigation against Sun.

Almost three years ago, a company named Trilogy (now Versata Software) filed suit against Sun in the Eastern District of Texas. For a number of years, Sun had licensed from Trilogy what is known as configurator software - a program that enables a company to track components and build hardware configurations. (I own a Mini. If you go to the Mini website you can assemble online the type of vehicle you want, including all components and options. This is an example of configurator software.)

Sun paid many millions of dollar to Trilogy for the use of the software and additional support, but it never worked to our satisfaction. In 2002, we made the decision to look for an alternative and adopted an Oracle platform with additional features created by Sun. Needless to say, Trilogy was not happy with the loss of business and chose to sue Sun alleging patent infringement, copyright misappropriation and breach of contract, among other claims. As we proceeded with discovery, it was clear that Trilogy was extremely confident in their position as reflected in their unwillingness to engage in any meaningful settlement discussions.

For us, the case was a difficult one to assess. Although we were certain we should prevail, we knew that it would be challenging for a jury to understand the complex technology and intellectual property laws presented in the case. And, the jury would be one located in Marshall, Texas, which has the reputation of being very favorable for plaintiffs.

On April 16th, we started trial confident in our position, but concerned about our ability to communicate it in a very short period to a jury with almost no technical experience. Facing us was Trilogy's damage claim of $49m - with the possibility of treble damages, attorneys fees and interest.

After six days of testimony and evidence, the jury returned its verdict - finding completely in favor of Sun on all claims. The jury even determined that Trilogy's patents were invalid, which should be wonderful news to others facing suit by Trilogy.

I've been asked how we were able to achieve such a overwhelming result. In short, the answer is "talent". This isn't meant as braggadocio, but rather a reflection of a team of skilled and focused attorneys led by Sun's Chief IP Counsel, Noreen Krall, and Jeff Randall of Skadden, Arps. Throughout the litigation, they continued to adapt to the challenges of new issues and facts, but always maintained conviction in their view that Sun should prevail. To both of them and the rest of the team - a big "thanks".

Monday Oct 06, 2008

Just one more thing.

I promise, I do have other subjects to write about; however, immediately after my last blog we received some additional news of interest concerning the NetApp litigation.

After NetApp filed its lawsuit to halt adoption of Sun's open source ZFS technology, we responded by filing reexamination requests with the PTO citing the extensive amount of highly relevant prior art that was not disclosed or considered when NetApp originally filed its patents. The patent office clearly agreed with the relevance of this prior art, as demonstrated by its rejection of the claims across all of the reexaminations. Of these patents, three have been described by NetApp as "core" (US Patent Nos. 6,857,001; 6,892,211; and 5,819,292). Here's the current status of each of them:

NetApp Patent No. 6,857,001 - The PTO rejected all 63 claims of the patent based on 10 prior art references provided by Sun. In addition, the trial court has agreed to remove that patent from the litigation for now pending the final reexamination by the PTO.

NetApp Patent No. 6,892,211 - The PTO rejected all 24 claims of the patent based on 12 prior art references provided by Sun. There is currently a request pending before the trial judge to stay this patent from the litigation as well.

NetApp Patent No. 5,819,292 - And late last week, we were informed that the PTO has rejected all of the asserted claims of this patent relying on at least two separate prior art references out of the many provided by Sun. (The examiner felt that to consider the other references would be "redundant".)

Some may recall that the '292 ("WAFL" technology) patent was what NetApp's founder, David Hitz, originally highlighted on his blog as being innovative and infringed by ZFS. However, what this litigation is proving is what we have known all along - ZFS is a fundamentally different, game changing technology.

It's the same thing we hear from our customers.

Thursday Oct 02, 2008

More on the NetApp litigation

I recently read Judge Laporte's Order Construing Claims in the NetApp v. Sun litigation. Judge Laporte is the United States Magistrate Judge who is hearing this case in the Federal Court for the Northern District of California. Reading the order was again a reminder of the breadth and diversity of cases that judges are called to consider. These include everything from antitrust, personal injury and employment lawsuits, to cases involving conflicts over ERISA and some even more unique disputes.

Which makes it all the more impressive when a judge is also able to understand and render a decision relating to highly complex technologies in a patent case as part of a Markman hearing. For those who don't practice in this area, a Markman hearing (taking its name from the case of Markman v. Westview Instruments, Inc.) is a pre-trial procedure in which each party presents briefs, tutorials and expert witness testimony to establish the meaning of key terms in disputed patents. Aside from the actual trial, the Markman hearing is the most important part of a patent infringement litigation.

On August 27, 2008, the Markman hearing was held before Judge Laporte. In dispute were fourteen phrases in seven patents (four asserted by Sun and three by NetApp) that required the court to determine the meaning of terms like "Domain Name", "Non-volatile Storage Means" and "Root Inode", among others. Given the complexity, we were impressed when only two weeks later, the judge issued her order.

And, we were very pleased.

In summary, the court agreed with Sun's interpretation on six of the disputed terms (two of which the court adopted with slight modification) and with NetApp on one. As to the remaining terms, the court either formulated its own interpretation or requested that the parties propose a further construction (i.e. definition). If you want to read the Order from the Markman hearing you can find it here.

Most significantly, the Court found each of the asserted claims in NetApp's 7,200,715 patent relating to RAID technology to be "indefinite" - meaning that someone with experience in this area of technology could not understand the limits of the claimed invention. With regard to NetApp's '715 patent, the court agreed with Sun's position that the claims of the patent are flatly inconsistent with and impossible under the teaching of the patent specification. In effect, unless NetApp appeals and this finding is reversed, the '715 patent is effectively invalidated in this case and against others in the future.

In addition, the Court's findings on the terms "server identification data", "domain name", "portion of a communication" "element of a communication" and "completing a write operation within a local processing node" further strengthen our position that the processors, network interface and systems management software used across NetApp's product line infringe Sun's patents.

Meanwhile ZFS and OpenStorage continue to gain momentum.

Thursday Jun 26, 2008

NetApp Litigation - an update

Over the last few months, I've had many requests for an update on the litigation between Sun and NetApp. There is clearly quite a bit of interest in the case in the media. Developers are curious whether NetApp will be successful in hindering even greater adoption of Sun's ZFS open source technology. (Nice to see Apple supporting ZFS.) And, I'm sure NetApp customers are interested in understanding the impact of the 22 patents Sun has asserted in response against NetApp's product line. So, here's a summary of where we are.

After NetApp sued Sun, we responded with six reexamination requests on the patents asserted by NetApp. Reexamination is a procedure in which a party submits documents (prior art) relating to a patent to the US Patent Office (PTO) and asks that it reconsider whether that patent should have ever been issued. If the PTO agrees and determines there is a “substantial new question of patentability" (SNQP) it will grant the request and reopen the patent examination process on that patent. Included in our requests was a significant amount of highly relevant prior art that was not considered by the PTO when it first granted the NetApp patents. (By the way, to those of you who submitted prior art - "thank you!”)

Over the last two months, the PTO has granted the first five of our reexamination requests, finding in all the cases that multiple “SNQP” exist for each patent (one request filed in June is still pending). These include, among others, US Patent Nos. 5,819,292; 6,857,001 and 6,892,211, "core patents" according to NetApp. With regard to one NetApp patent, the ‘001 patent, the PTO has issued a first action rejecting all the claims of this patent. Based on the positive response we received from the PTO, we asked the trial court to stay a portion of the litigation. Obviously, it doesn't make sense to go through the expense and time of litigating a patent in court if the PTO is likely to find it invalid. The court agreed with our request and at least one NetApp patent has thus far been removed from the litigation. We expect to hear more from the PTO on the remaining reexaminations over the course of the year.

In our defense, we have asserted a total of 22 patents covering technology ranging from microprocessors to file system management. The NetApp products accused of infringing Sun patents include FAS6000,FAS9000, FAS3000, FAS2000, V3000, V6000filers, MetroCluster, SnapMirror, SyncMirror, SnapVault, FlexVol, FlexClone, R200 Platform, NearStore Virtual Tape Library, and FAS platforms with SATA drives. Even the recently acquired Onaro products are also subject to claims of infringement of the Sun patents-in-suit. Of note, none of the patents being advanced by Sun in the original case has been challenged by NetApp in the PTO.

A settlement conference was held yesterday before Judge Spero in the Northern District of California. And, it was rather brief. While we entered into the process with a willingness to engage in constructive discussion with NetApp, unfortunately, we weren't able to resolve the dispute.

Why? It wasn't for lack of effort. Instead, it's because our two companies have very divergent views on the future of computing. It has become increasingly clear, that although NetApp originally claimed this case to be about Sun's alleged patent infringement (an assertion which we are confident we will prove was unfounded), the case is about something else entirely. It's really about the clash between two different business models, one proprietary, the other open. NetApp admits as much in a declaration of Dave Hitz (a document recently unsealed by the court). It is this difference that is the source of the litigation. And, as more of the world moves away from proprietary models, I expect to see other litigations arise between companies in this area.

To be clear, Sun = FOSS. We have transformed our company and aligned it around the belief that giving away our technology and investing in related communities will create greater adoption of our intellectual property and ultimately redound to the benefit of our shareholders, customers and the open source community. When it comes to Sun's commitment to open source - "the horse is out of the barn". Not only that, it's also had foals. And, their names are Sun Open Storage, OpenSolaris, MySQL, Glassfish, OpenJDK, OpenSparc and...

Wednesday Feb 06, 2008

The best offense...is a good defense.

I recently shared dinner with a few other GCs of local technology companies. It was a nice evening in which we were able to relax and share insights (and commiserate) about topics of common interest. During the course of our meal while we were discussing rising legal costs, one of my table mates made a statement that I found somewhat bothersome. He said that when faced with patent "troll" litigation, he knows he is going to pay something to get rid of the lawsuit and so he economizes on the use of defense counsel. After all, the thinking goes, if your intent is to settle a case, why spend money on a strong defense?

His view is completely contrary to how we think about this problem at Sun. It's also symptomatic of the way many companies view this issue as a quarterly "cost of doing business" without considering the long term consequences of settlement both for individual companies and our industry.

Before going further, let me state that we respect the intellectual rights of third parties. When a third party claim has been clear and the terms reasonable, we have entered into licenses. However, those situations are easily distinguished from the cases that make up almost all of our present docket of patent litigation. These lawsuits have usually been filed with no advance notice, by plaintiffs that don't commercialize their patents (i.e. create and sell products) and in venues considered favorable to them. It's also almost always the case that these plaintiffs have done little or no investigation to ascertain whether our products infringe prior to filing their lawsuit.

Let me provide an example. Last year, I described a patent litigation brought against Sun by a company named Exponential Solutions LLC. I use the term "company" in the broadest sense as Exponential Solutions does not appear to make any products or offer any services. It is purely a patent holding company consisting of two individuals: Raymond Ratcliff (inventor) and Frank Benevento (investor and decision maker for Exponential).

Exponential filed its complaint against Sun in the Southern District of Florida. The case alleged that the Sun Grid service infringed two patents: 6,996,548 ("Method and apparatus for providing a reward for the use of a processor in a parallel processing environment") and 7,127,437 ("Method and apparatus for receiving a reward for use of a processor in a parallel processing environment"). These patents describe the use of distributed computing and payment to people for use of their home computers connected to a network.

The first we were aware of this suit was after it had been filed. Several months later, we had our first real communication with Exponential when they proposed that Sun pay them an amount with many, many zeros or a large ongoing royalty on our products and services. We declined. While it would have been easy to make the safe decision and pay a license fee to avoid the cost of litigation, we chose to invest in defending ourselves. Invest not just in showing that we did not infringe - we were confident that we did not - but also in identifying prior art to demonstrate that these patents should be invalidated. Our investment yielded results.

Specifically, we found a great deal of prior art that appeared to anticipate Exponential's patents including, a book co-edited by Exponential's own technical expert. More interestingly, we found evidence that suggested another piece of prior art relating to the SETI@home project had been known by Exponential's attorneys, but not produced to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office when the application was made. In November 2007, the court allowed us to amend our complaint to include an inequitable conduct claim based on these facts.

We had further success when, in December 2007, the court entered a Markman ruling supporting Sun's view that key claims in the patents should be construed narrowly. We were also successful in getting the Court to order Exponential's expert to testify and produce documents that we believed would support our view that the patents were invalid. The court went even further and ordered that all communications between the expert and plaintiff's attorneys be produced. Perhaps, it was the combination of these events that made Exponential begin to rethink the merits of its case.

As we headed for a February trial date, Exponential's demands got smaller and smaller until, ultimately, they agreed to a dismissal with prejudice - meaning they can't bring the case against Sun again,or against our customers, partners and vendors. And, Sun didn't pay a dime in settlement. In fact, the biggest impediment to a final settlement was not our unwillingness to pay, but rather our demand that terms of the settlement NOT be confidential. Why? Because as much as companies would like to have our legislators solve this problem, we also need to consider what we can do. This includes not only investing in a defense when facing these types of plaintiffs, but also by openly sharing information about these cases.

I encourage other in-house legal departments to do the same.

Monday Oct 29, 2007

The NetApp Litigation (continued)

Today, we filed a second complaint against NetApp for infringement of six additional patents and other related claims. Although it may appear a separate case, it is in reality, part of the same litigation originally brought by NetApp in Eastern Texas to impede the adoption of ZFS. There are many theories as to why NetApp chose this particular venue, but because they sued Sun in that location we were forced to respond there. And, that is what we did last Thursday.

The case we filed today is in the Northern District of California. While we dislike the fact that we are forced to litigate this matter at all, we believe California is a more appropriate forum for any dispute between Sun and NetApp. Why? For starters, our companies are headquartered less than 10 miles apart here in Silicon Valley. All of the key witnesses in this case are located here, as are our attorneys. The same for most of the documentary evidence. And, almost all of the technology in dispute was developed here as well.

So to us, it makes more sense in terms of efficiency and economy, that this case be litigated here. With this in mind, we will be bringing a motion before the court in California asking that the case filed in Texas be consolidated with the case filed by Sun today for trial here in the Bay Area. Bottom line, this move would be in the best interest of all parties involved...especially our respective shareholders. We hope that NetApp agrees.

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