Long-Running Disk Drive Patent Fight Winds Down

Long-Running Disk Drive Patent Fight Winds Down

It took 14 years of litigation, 200 days of deposition testimony and a wealth of attorneys fees, but Convolve Inc.’s billion-dollar infringement case against Seagate Technology and Compaq Computer Corporation (now Hewlett-Packard Company) may have finally bitten the dust.

In a summary judgment ruling issued on Friday, U.S. District Judge George Daniels in Manhattan held that Seagate and Compaq didn’t infringe a Convolve patent relating to computer disk dive technology. In a prior ruling that was affirmed on appeal, Daniels dismissed additional claims of patent infringement, trade secrets misappropriation and breach of contract.

Convolve is a tiny company that marketed disk drive technology in the late 1990s. The company sued in 2000, claiming it shared its technology during licensing negotiations with Compaq and Seagate only to have its ideas stolen in alleged violation of a nondisclosure agreement. The complaint alleged willful infringement of three patents, trade secrets misappropriation and breach of contract.

Convolve licensed one of the three patents from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which was a co-plaintiff in the case. Convolve and MIT, jointly represented by Cadwalader Wickersham & Taft, sought $800 million in damages before interest.

A revolving team of lawyers at McDermott Will & Emery has represented Seagate from the start. The current lead counsel are Daniel Alberti and Eric Hagen. Compaq was originally represented by Ropes & Gray, but a Bartlit Beck Herman Palenchar & Scott team led by Christopher Landgraff took over around 2008.

The case ground to halt in the mid-2000s amid a detour to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit. Seagate had asserted an advice-of-counsel defense, basically arguing that it shouldn’t be on the hook for enhanced damages because an outside lawyer advised the company that it didn’t infringe the Convolve patents. Convolve demanded to see Seagate’s communications with trial counsel at McDermott Will, hoping those communications would undercut Seagate’s defense. The Federal Circuit shielded the documents in a precedent-setting 2007 ruling called In Re Seagate.

The case took another unlikely turn in 2009, when the parties were mired in summary judgment briefing. In an affidavit, a former Seagate engineer unloaded accusations of willful infringement and evidence destruction during his time at Seagate. The whistleblower later sued his lawyer, Steven Wittels (formerly of the firm now known as Sanford Heisler), and Convolve’s lawyers at Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft, alleging they made him unemployable by not keeping his identity under wraps. Wittels won a motion to dismiss in February. Cadwalader’s motion to dismiss is still pending. (Alison Frankel of Reuters wrote about the allegations here.)

Despite that setback, the defendants won a 2011 ruling from Daniels that dismissed the remaining patent and trade secrets claims. Convolve appealed to the Federal Circuit, which mostly affirmed Daniels but revived claims related to one patent. After Friday’s ruling, nothing remains of the case.

“It was a very happy Friday afternoon here at McDermott Will & Emery,” Alberti said in an interview. “The fact that a case could last 14 years, and produce this many tentacles that branched off, is remarkable.”

Cadwalader’s Gregory Markel, who represents Convolve, declined to comment.

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