The most prestigious law firms and the most prominent names in the world of science and technology have been trying for years to challenge intellectual rights to the magnetic disk reader, which is under the patent of Aleksandar Kavčić, a former student of the Mathematics High School in Belgrade, and Carnegie Mellon University’s professor Jose Moura. According to the final judgement of the U.S. Appellate Court, in 2016, Marvell Technology paid $750 million in damages
This compensation was, and remains, the highest infringement reward for a patent in the electronic/computer industry. The trial itself lasted seven years and generated a jury verdict of over $1 billion, yet it largely remained obscure to the general public, even though the scenario unfolded as if it were a top Hollywood movie. So, who is Aleksandar Kavčić?
Aleksandar Kavčić (born 1968) is a former pupil of Belgrade’s Mathematical High School. He completed four years of studies at the University of Belgrade’s Faculty of Electrical Engineering, only to move abroad – due to the war in this region and other circumstances – to earn his degree in electrical engineering in Bochum (Germany), and then to defend his doctorate in the U.S. It was actually this benchmark doctorate that represented a turning point in Kavčić’s entire life.
“Upon graduation, back in the 1990s, I immediately wanted to do my doctorate at some university and I made a beginner’s mistake. I sent CVs and accompanying application letters in which I stated that I was interested in almost anything. Back then I really didn’t know that this was inappropriate in the academic world, because everyone’s seeking students who are highly focused towards one specific scientific area,” says Kavčić. He applied to 12 American universities – and was accepted by 10. Carnegie Mellon University, or rather Professor José Moura, recognised “his man” in that CV; someone who would combine research in somewhat unrelated areas – signal processing and magnetics.
Carnegie Mellon University needed many years to decide in favour of a complicated and very expensive lawsuit. The best lawyers were engaged from the offices of K&L Gates, a law firm that was started by Bill Gates Sr., the father of Microsoft’s founder
“My mentor, Professor Maura encouraged me to try to solve a problem that I previously had not heard of, although it was known in the literature from the early ‘80s when serial production of magnetic disks, so-called disk drives, began.”
When a very thin magnetic layer is applied to glass, metal or plastic disk, and when closely spaced electrical impulses are written on it, the process closely resembles writing on greasy paper in that the ink percolates towards the adjacent letters. While it was known how to write data on disks, it was unknown how to optimally read densely written data. Without optimal readers, densities had to be scaled back, or else readback error rates would have been unacceptably high.
Your doctorate, which you earned more than 20 years ago, simultaneously represented a solution to this problem and an electromagnetic revolution. You discovered a method of reading from magnetic drives that have remained unsurpassed to date. How did you resolve that and how long did your research last?
The proper mathematical analysis of magnetic recording hadn’t previously been carried out, but that was precisely where the solution was: to apply proper magnetic recording models to so-called dynamic programming, which implied relatively complicated mathematics. That’s why roughly three years passed until the “eureka moment”.
Professor Maura requested that we summarise the solution such that nothing could be further eliminated or added to it. When that was done, I was impatient to publish the result in a professional journal, and then to turn to something else. “We won’t publish it anywhere,” said the professor, surprising me with his answer, before explaining that we should first patent the solution. The patent was accepted and approved three years later, which is the usual time-frame for such a procedure.
Our solution became the de facto industry standard that enabled continuous increases in the capacity of disk drives, which is today measured in terabytes. I’m convinced that our solution will be used as long magnetic memories exist. First and foremost, that’s because we’ve proven mathematically that better detectors are impossible to build
The first indications of the unauthorised use of your patented magnetic reader began arriving only in 2003. How did you ultimately discover that your invention was being used without authorisation by Marvell Technology, which is the absolute market leader in chip production?
From the moment we found the solution, I knew how valuable it was and that it would be used. Amongst other things, my doctorate enabled me to become a professor at Harvard in 1998.
It was not until 2009 that Carnegie Mellon University filed a lawsuit for the unauthorised use of its intellectual property – because the intellectual property of students and professors belongs primarily to the university. That wasn’t an easy decision, given that until then no one, not even the CIA, could “open” a chip and determine what’s inside. Carnegie Mellon University needed many years to decide in favour of a complicated and very expensive lawsuit.
The best lawyers were engaged from the offices of K&L Gates, a law firm that was started by Bill Gates Sr., the father of Microsoft’s founder. Their experts performed a preliminary analysis – which cost around half a million dollars – that was convincing enough to launch a lawsuit to protect the patent rights.
Naturally, the defendant, Marvell Technology, also had excellent lawyers, exactly because compensation approaching $1 billion had been sought. A similar lawsuit had previously occurred only once – in the dispute between Apple and Samsung, but it did not last as long, and the jury verdict did not withstand the scrutiny of the appeal which eroded the award significantly.
This event nevertheless marked your life. As the trial unfolded, as you uncovered court evidence, it was as though you caused an electronic revolution.
The most delicate factor in our case was that the defendants tried to invalidate our patent on four separate occasions, which was pretty stressful, given that the reason for invalidation could be some minor issue in the procedure, which has nothing to do with the technical essence. I was interrogated most brutally, literally like in a movie.
I felt bad that everything boiled down to money, which is incomparably less important than the general value and the importance of the patent. This patent is used multiple trillion times per second around the globe as a method of reading all bits we ever fetch from disk drives.
That was a defining moment in data storage – who would be the first to incorporate this detector, the reader, into a disk drive, because it significantly lowers the price per bit. The detector is the core – it’s like the microprocessor in a computer
While I was dealing with this lawsuit, I neglected everything else. And I’m sorry about that. I didn’t get into science to appear in the NY Times or some of the other magazines for such a reason. I was even bothered by that kind of publicity. I failed to get tenure as a professor at Harvard, precisely because the importance of the invention was kept a secret from the public for years, and it was ultimately disputed by the defendants in court. A scientist can only be acknowledged if he is recognised by other scientists, but if a large corporation like Marvell, prior and during a trial (by engaging top names in science and law) disputes the validity and utility of the invention, it is nearly impossible.
It is rare for such a disputed invention to eventually emerge from obscurity and overwhelm the planet.
It’s very difficult in the U.S. to win a patent lawsuit as a plaintiff. Marvell paid the most eminent names in that field to provide their professional expertise. It is very troubling when scientists who are your colleagues challenge you and try to undermine the value of your patent. That was especially true for me because I had an emotional relationship towards all of that.
The importance and benefit of the patent were kept in secret for a long time. We had done something that didn’t need anything to be added. And when you close a field in such a way, then other scientists aren’t interested in that, because they have nothing to add. Our invention is incredibly beneficial and has been included in billions of products and is used as many times per second daily.
Your patent brought Marvell tremendous profits. How can that even be measured, given that there’s nothing left in existence to which your reader isn’t applied?
At the time of the trial, around three billion chips had been made. Now that number is incomparably higher, by billions…
Marvell holds 60% of the market, while Broadcom holds the remaining 40%. We believe that Broadcom also uses the patent without authorization and a lawsuit was launched last year, in July 2018. The trial against Broadcom has yet to unfold because lawyers wouldn’t be lawyers if they were to tell their clients to accept a settlement and sign…
It’s hard to enter this market segment, especially if you consider that those two companies, Marvell and Broadcom, are the only ones in the world to have mastered these chips. All others that have tried ultimately failed. So, all the chips that enter the market are products of these two companies, Marvell and Broadcom.
That was a defining moment in data storage – who would be the first to incorporate this detector, the reader, into a disk drive, because it significantly lowers the price per bit. The detector is the core of a memory device – it’s like the microprocessor in a computer.
“Our solution became the de facto industry standard that enabled continuous increases in the capacity of disk drives, which is today measured in terabytes. I’m convinced that our solution will be used as long magnetic memories exist. First and foremost, that’s because we’ve proven mathematically that better detectors are impossible to build. Amongst other factors, to date, around six billion chips containing our patented invention have been sold.”
Serbia needs to create a system in which the people (not political parties) truly govern themselves and give it a chance to evolve on its own… I think there’s a misconception in Serbia that the country lacks investments/money. We in Serbia lack intelligence; clever people in key positions and a good system of governance
Today, as he recalls the very beginning, Kavčić doesn’t hide his emotions. At that time, when he had no suspicion of what he’d discovered, Kavčić says that he only felt a huge relief and that his first thought was that he would finally earn his doctorate!
The path to the solution took years to complete. At that time my feelings were mixed; those were the ‘90s… And when I earned my doctorate, I just thought – my life has begun!
I was tormented by the problem for years, 24 hours a day. That’s something you think about even while you’re sleeping. At one point you become asocial. And that’s characteristic of anyone who’s focused on something. The moment of the invention was a huge relief for the brain. Strange things happen when one is focused. I even wrote equations on napkins in nightclubs and restaurants … the entire problem simply possesses you and that’s the way it is.
Carnegie Mellon University honoured Kavčić with a privilege rarely awarded to a scientist, by naming a research fund after the inventors: the Kavčić-Moura Endowment Fund. Kavčić and Maura, along with their wives, have personally supported the fund with several million dollars.
You have seven registered patents and vast experience in the U.S., and it could be said the experience of all kinds. You were both a student and a professor at several universities. What makes America more challenging than any other country?
Embedded at the heart of the American education system are individuality, initiative and inventiveness. In such an enormous country, of 300 million inhabitants, the average American may not be highly educated, but isolate the top 0.1%, the intellectual elite, and you get an army of 300 thousand phenomenal individuals who set themselves apart with the quality of their minds. That’s a huge human capital. When you take such a corpus of 300 thousand people and allow them to thrive in a system that rewards inventiveness, it is no surprise that they create wonders.
How do you see education in Serbia today; what do you recognise as the biggest problem?
The emergence of dubious private universities, I call them kiosk-universities. I don’t want to be one of those who only criticise. These days, Serbian people hold weekly walks in protest to criticise the system with very good reason.
However, I don’t see too many solutions offered. The Serbian society has been deteriorating for the last 40 years and it’s impossible to right the ship overnight. Serbia needs to create a system in which the people (not political parties) truly govern themselves and give it a chance to evolve on its own. For example, Serbian citizens still do not have the right to vote for their representatives by name into legislative positions of all levels of government. It is a serious deficiency. I think there’s a misconception in Serbia that the country lacks investments/money. We in Serbia lack intelligence; clever people and a good system of governance. Elect intelligent and honest people to offices, and prosperity will follow.
What would you recommend to talented students – to follow in your footsteps and improve their knowledge abroad, or to stay in Serbia?
One should always go abroad, gather knowledge there, but consider returning. The electrical engineering faculties in Belgrade or Novi Sad do not have monopolies on knowledge. It’s rare in America for an individual to complete his doctoral studies at the same college where he earned an undergraduate degree. There are only a few professors working at universities where they earned their doctorates because it is only with the flow of people that ideas spread and are enriched. Thus, it is necessary to travel and exchange ideas, especially until Serbia changes its education system which has long been overdue for a revamp.
You decided that, until your children grow up, you’ll spend part of the year in Belgrade and part in the Texan capital of Austin, which is rapidly becoming a new hub of the high-tech industry. Everyone is trying to find a solution to bring back the young people who have left…
They will come back when this country becomes a nice place to live, free of corruption, nepotism and hidden agendas. Fix the country and they will return. It is as simple as that.
Have you ever received an invitation to lecture at some college in Serbia?
Aleksandar Kavčić served as a faculty member (assistant professor, associate professor and professor) in electrical engineering at Harvard University and the University of Hawaii. While on leaves from Harvard and U. of Hawaii, he served as a visiting scholar/professor at the City University of Hong Kong and the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Kavčić received his dipl.ing. degree in electrical engineering from the Ruhr- University in Bochum, Germany, before earning his doctoral degree in electrical and computer engineering at Carnegie Mellon University.