A Native American tribe has sued Amazon and Microsoft for patent infringement.
The St. Regis Mohawk Tribe recently acquired supercomputer patents from SRC Labs, which is a co-plaintiff with the tribe in the suits. The deal is a part of a legal gambit that involves the tribe invoking its right to sovereign immunity, a U.S. doctrine dictating that sovereign bodies cannot have civil suits brought against them. Sovereign immunity may allow SRC and the tribe to prevent a counter-challenge from Microsoft and Amazon on the patents, or challenges from any other company that wants to sue.
The Mohawk Tribe, which governs the American side of a reservation that spans the U.S.-Canada border, has been making headlines over the last couple months for its novel involvement in patent disputes. On Sept. 8, the pharmaceutical company Allergan announced that it would be transferring its patents for Restasis, a dry-eye drug, to the tribe. The tribe would then invoke its right to sovereign immunity to swat away intellectual property challenges, and then lease the patents back to Allergan. In exchange, Allergan agreed to provide the tribe with an initial $13.75 million, along with an additional $15 million for every year the patents are viable.
The deal, however, received bipartisan skepticism from Congress, and a federal judge invalidated the patents on Monday. He further lambasted the company’s deal with the Mohawk Tribe as a ruse to “rent” sovereign immunity, though he did not rule on whether the deal itself was legal. Allergan plans to appeal.
The tribe itself has characterized its foray into the scrappy business of intellectual property as a way to diversify its revenue stream and become more self-reliant. In an FAQ on these patent endeavors, the tribe wrote, “the Tribal Council has indicated that it would allocate the money to benefit tribal members through enhancing government services (health, welfare, education, housing and other services).”
The tribe also noted that it will soon execute a third patent agreement with another company.