Neverending Struggles: 9 Insanely Long-Running Tech Lawsuits

Nobody ever said justice moves quickly, and lawsuits in the tech industry can sometimes leave the very technologies at the core of their dispute in the dust.


A bleak state of affairs

At the center of Charles Dickens's Bleak House is the fictional court case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce, a dispute over an inheritance that has gone on for decades. It may have been inspired by the legal wrangle over the estate of William Jennens, which incredibly dragged on for more than a century and ended only when legal fees had devoured all that remained of Jennens's vast wealth.

The tech industry has seen a number of long-running lawsuits as well. While none have gone on for quite so long, the fast pace of technological change means that often, no matter who wins or loses, the tech world has changed so much by the time the verdict arrives that it becomes difficult to remember what the argument was about in the first place.

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Steve Jobs shows off an iPod in 2005. REUTERS/Monica Davey

The ghosts of iPod DRM

In 2004, RealNetworks (remember them?) introduced Harmony, a backdoor that would allow customers who bought music through RealNetworks' Rhapsody store to load their files onto their iPods. The next year, Apple updated iTunes to plug up the hole, prompting a class action lawsuit that went through a bevy of legal maneuvering before finally coming before a jury this year, even though the iTunes store ditched DRM in 2009. The actual trial ended remarkably swiftly in Apple's favor, and hinged not on philosophical questions of whether Apple was abusing its monopoly power, but whether the iTunes update had genuine improvements that went beyond blocking competitors. The greatest interest turned out to be the potential release of new unseen Steve Jobs videos.

sco plaque

SCO vs. everybody

The open source community spent much of the '00s carefully watching a series of lawsuits filed by SCO starting 2003, which asserted that it was the successor to companies that owned the rights to the code for Unix, and that IBM had illegally contributed some of that code to Linux. In the widening legal fight, IBM hit back, hard (the dangers of fighting a very, very rich company), but along the way SCO tried to legally take down the very notion of open source software. In the end, a court ruled that Novell, not SCO, owned the rights to the code in question. SCO filed for bankruptcy in 2012, but aspects of its trial with IBM are still under litigation.

youtube screenshot

Viacom vs. YouTube

In March of 2007, just four months after YouTube was acquired by Google, Viacom filed a billion-dollar lawsuit against the then fledgling video service, angry that so many of clips from the Daily Show were ending up online. This was before Hulu was streaming video, back when for most people Netflix was a service that sent DVDs through the mail. After seven years of maneuvering, the lawsuit ended, incredibly, with no money changing hands (except for hundreds of millions of dollars spent on lawyers), as the two companies pledged to work together to fight piracy. Today, the viral sharing of embeddable clips from shows like the Daily Show is an integral part of the content industry.

seagate drive

Convolve vs. Compaq and Seagate

In 1998, the engineering firm Convolve tried to sell Seagate patented technology that would make the hard drives Seagate was selling to Compaq quieter. The three companies couldn't come to an agreement -- but then, Convolve alleges, Seagate used the technology, which had been shared during negotions under an NDA, anyway. The case ground on for more than 14 years, finally ending with the U.S. Supreme Court rejecting Convolve's final appeal. The most dramatic moment came in 2009, when an ex-Seagate employee agreed to testify that the company had destroyed potentially incriminating evidence -- a move that the whistleblower later said ended up destroying his professional life.

gateway laptop

Microsoft (and some other companies) vs. the ever-changing heirs of Bell Labs

Microsoft's long-running fight over patents related to MP3s and MPEGs is a typical endless patent lawsuit, but it's a useful illustration of the bewildering constellation of players that can be involved in a case like this. It started off back in 2003 when Lucent, which used to be Bell Labs, sued Gateway (which no longer exists) and Dell, claiming they misused the aforementioned patents. Later Microsoft got roped in as Lucent's main antagonist, and Lucent merged with the French company Alcatel, and Microsoft had to pay hundreds of millions of dollars, but that got reversed, six years after the whole thing began. (Weird coda: Alcatel-Lucent may soon be absorbed by the part of Nokia that Microsoft failed to absorb last year.)

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Oracle founder Larry Ellison looking benevolent. REUTERS/Robert Galbraith

Oracle vs. its own employees

If your boss underpaid you, failing to give you the overtime pay and compensation for breaks you were legally entitled to, you could be forgiven for being miffed if it took a while for that pay to make its way to you. How miffed would you be if you had to wait eight years? In 2011, Oracle finally bowed to a series of court decisions that found that California rules on who was and wasn't exempt from overtime pay requirements applied to people the company brought in to do trainings in California, even if they were based elsewhere. 1,725 people who had been fighting since 2003 divvied up a $35 million settlement -- about $20,000 apiece.

elphel camera

Google Books vs. people who write and publish books

When Google decided to scan and index just about any book it could lay its cameras on, it established an elaborate series of restrictions on access to book text to avoid lawsuits from copyright owners. Predictably, copyright owners sued anyway in 2005, and the fight dragged on well into the next decade. In 2013 a U.S. circuit judge called Google Books fair use and many interested parties have settled with Google, but an authors' group is still fighting on today.

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Microsoft vs. Novell: The battle of the word processors

When you think of lawsuits involving Microsoft leveraging its OS monopoly to promote its other products, you probably think about the Department of Justice's attempt to break up the company over its Internet Explorer dominance. But in 2004, Novell sued Microsoft for forcing WordPerfect into oblivion by pushing Microsoft Office on customers and hardware partners -- even though Novell had sold the word processor to Corel in 1996. The billion-dollar lawsuit didn't go to a jury until 2011; that jury couldn't agree on the case, and the judge ultimately dismissed it in July of 2012.

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The Lexmark printer cartridge saga and its unexpected consequences

The fight between Lexmark and Static Control Components started out in the realm of tech: did SCC have the right to reverse-engineer Lexmark chips in order to manufacture Lexmark-compatible printer cartridges? The lawsuit, filed in late 2002, was settled a mere two years later, largely in SCC's favor. But one point kept getting litigated for years and years: Lexmark had sent out letters to SCC's customers, claiming that its reverse-engineered chips were illegal; could SCC sue Lexmark for false advertising? In 2014, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that they could, in a decision that could radically expand the potential number of lawsuits filed under vaguely similar conditions.

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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