Either Akamai Technologies Inc. is taking a noble stance protecting intellectual property, or it’s feeding the patent trolls.
That’s the crux of a long-running patent infringement case that Akamai has brought against a rival in the Internet delivery business that will be heard before the US Supreme Court on Wednesday.
The Cambridge company has sued competitor Limelight Networks Inc. of Arizona, alleging it copied Akamai’s method for faster delivery of online content such as photos and videos.
What’s unusual about the case is that it will test an expanded version of a legal theory called “divided infringement” that has the technology and life sciences communities flocking to the Supreme Court to weigh in.
Many of the nation’s largest technology companies, including Google Inc., Cisco, eBay, Facebook, and Oracle are backing Limelight, fearing that a victory for Akamai could encourage so-called patent trolls to file even more lawsuits challenging a company’s technology. Meanwhile the life sciences and medical technology industries have filed briefs backing Akamai out of concern their intellectual property would be vulnerable if Limelight won.
In short, Akamai contends Limelight infringes its patents, by allegedly performing some of Akamai’s protected methods for faster Internet delivery, and then when its customers perform the remainder.
Akamai said Limelight’s entire business model is built around stealing its technology. Limelight said it has distinct methods that do not infringe on Akamai.
In 2012, the US Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit sided with Akamai on the patent infringement. Moreover the Appeals Court questioned whether the steps by Limelight and its customers to copy the series of protected methods constituted “divided infringement,” in which multiple parties act collectively to infringe a patent.
The Appeals Court said Akamai should seek a hearing at the district court level over the issue of divided infringement. But Limelight appealed the case, putting the whole matter before the Supreme Court.
“Patent trolls” are firms or individuals that own patents but mainly make money by suing others for infringement, typically by taking advantage of the uncertainties around what’s covered in a patent. They’ve become a major nuisance to the technology industry, having reaped billions of dollars in payments from companies after bringing or threatening to bring legal action.
The tech companies believe that divided infringement will make it easier for “patent trolls” to bring poorly supported infringement claims, since they no longer would have to prove that anyone is directly infringing a patent, said Hunter Keeton, an intellectual property attorney at Wolf Greenfield who has followed the case.
Meanwhile, if Limelight prevails, the life sciences industry fears that methods for treating certain diseases, for instance, could be copied legally.
If a patent covers the co-administering of two drugs, for example, one person could inject the first drug and a second person could inject the second drug, and there would be no way to hold them liable for patent infringement if Limelight wins, according to the life sciences industry.
The Supreme Court is expected to issue a ruling by the end of June.Kyle Alspach can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @KyleAlspach and on betaboston.com.