MIT professors claim Ford stole technology for its F-Series truck line

Photo (c) Scott Kenneth Brodie - Getty Images

As usual, the patent infringement case is a who-owns-what can of worms

America’s favorite truck -- Ford’s F-Series -- came under scrutiny on Monday after three Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) professors filed a lawsuit claiming Ford filched proprietary technologies they invented to propel its Eco-Boost fuel-efficient engines.

For both sides of the argument, there’s some serious cash at stake. As of the 2018 model year, Ford’s F-Series creates $41 billion in annual revenue for the company, making the brand more valuable than Facebook, Coca-Cola, Time Warner, and Nike. In the lawsuit the MIT professors filed, they’re demanding an unspecified share of those proceeds.

Who owns what?

The MIT professors involved in the matter -- Leslie Bromberg, Daniel R. Cohn, and John B. Heywood -- claim they invented dual-injection technologies that make for better fuel-and-air mixing and combustion stability than direct injection, with less engine knock, according to Automotive News.

In that report, MIT described the technologies as “revolutionary throughout the industry” and note that those technologies have been cited by more than 115 other patents, including dozens by Ford.

An important piece of the puzzle is who owns what in this matter. It’s reported that the professors transferred their ownership of the technology to MIT which, in turn, granted back the consent to a company the professors created (Ethanol Boosting Systems LLC). Purportedly, that company offered to cut a deal on those patents with Ford, but Ford passed on the offer.

Many automakers interface with MIT on things like research and policy creation, but Ford and the college go way back. The Ford-MIT Alliance, launched in 1998, is MIT’s longest running industry alliance. More than 150 projects have been incubated through that partnership, which have led to “improvements in safety, vehicle autonomy, enterprise modeling, energy storage, and powertrain efficiency.”

However, Ford said that its need led to the MIT professors’ greed. According to Bloomberg News, Ford claimed in 2015 that the professors were “greedy inventors” and refused offers to negotiate exclusive rights to license the patents, the lawsuit alleges.

A sticky subject

There’s lots of hands in the air asking questions about this matter. On HackerNews, observers raised points about who the patents really belong to, why it took so long for this infringement to see the light of day, and the possibility that “there was some original arrangement which now looks inadequate for the inventors.”

“How could you possibly be sure that you didn't infringe on any patents when there are hundreds of thousands granted every year in the U.S. alone, and they are deliberately written in the most vague and obscure language possible?,” wrote one observer.

“What companies do instead is build a library of their own patents, which they can use against any other entity that sues them for patent infringement. The Apple vs. Samsung patent wars are a good example of this. This strategy generally works if the other party actually makes some sort of thing and is not a patent troll.”

Another threw out “I'm just guessing that there was some original arrangement which now looks inadequate for the inventors. That or Ford's lawyers messed up in a big way.”

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