April 04, 2012.
THE army of lawyers defending the CSIRO's intellectual-property rights over its patented wi-fi technology used in laptops and smartphones worldwide is bigger than the team of scientists and engineers that invented it.
CSIRO has been locked in litigation since 2005 to get IT giants to pay royalties for its wireless local area network, or WLAN, technology, which is now used to connect about three billion devices to the internet.
Its latest round was a stage in its campaign of "extreme commercialisation", the agency's acting group executive, information sciences, Nigel Poole, said.
The patent dispute was due to go before a district court in Texas this week but the parties settled out of court, and CSIRO expects to get $220 million in royalties. Other cases were settled in 2009, delivering $205m in earnings to the CSIRO that year.
The agency has licence agreements with 23 companies accounting for about 90 per cent of the industry and the technology has generated more than $430m.
CSIRO has about 10 staff members in Australia working on the commercialisation of the technology. Its US legal team numbers almost 20 and is spread across three firms.
The WLAN technology has its roots in research using radiotelescopes in the hunt for black holes. The researchers came up with the idea after their boss, John O'Sullivan, issued them a challenge: to find commercial applications of knowledge generated in their radioastronomy research.
Its big innovation was in technology that cleared the way to faster data transmission. The CSIRO was granted a US patent in 1996.
Adoption of the technology was accelerating by the middle of the decade, but CSIRO's requests to companies to sign licensing agreements failed. "The gap between what we felt was commercial value and what people were prepared to pay -- which was zero -- was getting greater," Mr Poole said. "That's when we made the decision to file patent litigation."
It was the first time that CSIRO had taken action on such a scale and some companies fought back hard. "Once you've decided to litigate, you've made a decision which says you're a fighter as opposed to a negotiator," Mr Poole said. "From then through 'til now, we've been in a fighting phase.
"It's unusual for a university . . . or even a medium-sized company to commercialise something by litigation. But in the end, if the stakes are high enough and you believe your position is clear enough, you've got no choice but to defend your IP."
The CSIRO is considering further legal action.