Cisco can’t shield customers from patent suits, court affirms

California appeals court upholds ruling that Cisco isn’t the target of TR Labs patent suits

A federal appeals court in California has upheld a lower court ruling that Cisco lacks standing to seek dismissal of patent infringement lawsuits against a number of its biggest customers - wireless network providers and enterprises - being brought by TR Labs, a Canadian research consortium.

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The court passed no judgment on the patents themselves or on the infringement claims leveled by TR Labs against the likes of AT&T, CenturyLink, Sprint Nextel and Comcast.

In essence, the appeals court agreed with a lower court's acceptance of TR Labs' contention that its patent infringement claims are rightfully against the users of telecommunications equipment - be it gear made by Cisco, Juniper, Ciena or others - and not the manufacturers. Cisco had argued that repeated mentions in court filings of the company and its products - including the ONS 15454 Multiservice Transport Platform (MSTP) and the CRS-1 Carrier Routing System - were reason to believe that Cisco would be accused by TR Labs of either direct or indirect infringement, and thus had standing to seek dismissal of the lawsuits against its customers.

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However, an attorney for TR Labs, George Summerfield, flat-out assured the court that his client had neither the intention nor cause to sue Cisco. There are substantial non-infringing uses of the equipment, Summerfield said, an assertion Cisco does not dispute, according to the court's written decision.

"In fact, all of the claims and all of the patents are directed at a communications network, not the particular switching nodes that are manufactured by Cisco and the other companies that are subject of our claims," Summerfield says in an audio recording of the oral arguments posted by blogger Brad Reese. ... "(Cisco's) products are used to infringe, as are products manufactured by Ciena, and Juniper, and Tellabs and other manufacturers that are named ... not just Cisco."

One of the judges asked Summerfield if TR Labs has sued network operators who do not use Cisco gear.

 "Yes, your honor, we have. There are customers who at least tell us that (they) don't use Cisco products, or the products that (they) do use are in non-infringing configurations."

"Cisco says the real fight is with (them), but that's not really true," Summerfield continues. "They're giving the building blocks to these companies and the companies put them together as they want. Cisco has nothing to do with that; they don't make those design choices, the telecommunications (companies) do.

"In fact, I would expect that if we got into a (patent) dispute with Cisco and we conducted discovery, what they would tell us is that you'd have to go talk to our customers if you want to find out how their networks are configured because we can't tell you."

The patents TR Labs is asserting are U.S. Patent Numbers 4,956,835; 5,850,505; 6,377,543; 6,404,734; 6,421,349; 6,654,379; 6,914,880; and 7,260,059.

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