Seagate defense relied on colorful ‘toy blocks’ to help jury understand key issue in patent dispute

How do multicolored toylike blocks stack up against a Nobel Prize-winning physicist in front of a jury that’s trying to decide a complex, technology-laden patent dispute?

Pretty well, based on a recent ruling in favor of Seagate Technology and its Minnesota-developed hard-disc-drive technology over German tech giant Siemens AG.

The decision touches on the technology behind the multibillion-dollar data-storage-device industry that crams more and more information into smaller and smaller packages in everything from consumer electronic products to personal computers and large corporate data center servers.

Earlier this week, a three-judge Federal Circuit Court of Appeals in California upheld a  2008 verdict from a trial where colored plastic blocks played a key role in helping jurors understand competing  patent claims at the heart of the dispute.

“Just because a case has extraordinarily hard technology to understand and the stakes are very high, if a jury finds an invention is obvious,” the appeals court will uphold the verdict, said David Gross, the Minneapolis-based Faegre & Benson partner who served as Seagate’s lead trial and appellate counsel. 

The dispute, dating to 2006, centered on Siemens’ claim that all Seagate disc drives since 2000 have infringed on its patent for a particular type of sensor used to read tightly packed digital information on hard disc drives. The device, called a giant magneto resistive (GMR) sensor, is “a teeny-tiny sensor you cannot see with the human eye,” Gross explained, and is incorporated into Seagate’s disc drive products developed in Minnesota.

Siemens’ initial claim sought $1 billion in damages. The damage claim was reduced through the litigation process to $160 million, but that claim was denied by the court verdict.

Plaintiffs in the United States typically seek jury trials, rather than a panel of judges, in patent disputes, Gross explained, because juries are viewed as sympathetic to claims that intellectual property has been violated. The challenge for Seagate’s legal team was made doubly difficult because the trial judge had instructed the jury that Seagate had in fact infringed on the Siemens patent.

Siemens called on Nobel Prize-winning physicist Dr. Sheldon Glashow to help make its case to the jury. The only defense left for Seagate was to convince the jury that the Siemens patent was not valid. The Seagate defense team from Faegre attacked on two fronts.  

First, they argued that another patent Seagate had licensed from IBM preceded the disputed patent, a fairly typical defense, Gross said. The second and more unusual defense centered on the claim that the Siemens patent was an “obvious” modification of existing technology, which is not protected under patent law, Gross explained.

And to make this argument to the jury, they turned to the colored plastic blocks.

As described in a National Law Journal article (PDF) on the case, “each colored layer of the blocks represented a layer in the tiny sensors. The block layers could be pulled apart and combined in different ways, which helped Gross argue that IBM invented the technology and did a better job. For example, the IBM block model included a purple layer, while the more simplistic model representing the Siemens patent lacked that purple layer. About 90 percent of the technical aspects of the case were addressed using the blocks, Gross said.”

After a five-week trial, a jury ruled in Seagate’s favor on both points in December 2008. Siemens’ appeal was heard last week and the court ruled in Seagate’s favor several days later,

“We believed the jury’s verdict was well supported by the evidence, and we are very pleased that the court of appeals agreed with us,” said Gross in a press release announcing the verdict.

The Faegre defense team included intellectual property litigation partners Cal Litsey and Aaron Van Oort and IP litigation associates Chad Drown, Tim Grimsrud, Kevin Wagner, Chris Burrell, Jeya Paul, Jackie Harlow, Ari Lukoff and Darcy Grunwald.

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