CSIRO has earned a $220 million financial windfall after settling litigation against companies in the US to license its wireless local area network (WLAN) technology, known in IT land as 'wi-fi'.
The national science agency has been suing companies which have been using the technology – invented by a team of CSIRO scientists in the 1990s – without a licence.
In 2009, it received US$205 million after settling cases against 14 US companies. Since then, the agency has notched up licence agreements with 23 other companies.
More than five billion products incorporating the invention – including laptop computers (possibly even the PC you are reading this article on), smartphones, games devices and consumer media products – will have been sold by the time the patents expire in 2013.
"CSIRO will receive more than $220 million from this round of WLAN licensing," minister for science and research, Chris Evans said in a statement this week.
The CSIRO now has licence agreements with companies representing about 90 percent of the industry, with total revenue earned from the technology more than $430 million.
The lead inventor of the technology, John O'Sullivan, was awarded the 2009 Prime Minister's Award for Science.
Spend it wisely, urges staff
The windfall from CSIRO's patent victory should be invested in the next generation of science innovation, the research body's staff organisation says.
The union representing CSIRO employees has called on the Federal Government to invest the proceeds of Wi-Fi licence agreements into the next generation of scientific and technological research.
The secretary of the CSIRO staff association, Sam Popovski, welcomed news of CSIRO's latest $220 million agreement with three US companies that sell devices using the wireless technology.
"This latest agreement brings Wi-Fi patent revenue to nearly $500 million – much needed funding that should be used to boost Australian science and research at CSIRO,” he said.
Dr Popovski said while revenue from the licencing agreements should create some breathing space for CSIRO’s finances, the Government needed to think longer term.
“The WLAN patent expires in 2013, around the time quadrennial funding for CSIRO is due for renewal. So this revenue buys some breathing space for CSIRO and the Government.”
“But public sector funding for CSIRO lags behind CPI and has failed to grow in real terms since the 1980s. The Federal Government needs to ensure there are adequate resources to develop the capacity that will allow the next generation of science innovation to flourish,” he said.
The WLAN case is a reminder that good science takes time, Dr Popovski said.
"The sale of smartphones and tablets has exploded over the past few years but the development of the wireless technology that underpins them is no overnight sensation."
The Australian research that led to the development of the WLAN technology started in the late 1970s before being developed at CSIRO over the next twenty years.
"This is a story of committed Australian innovation over three decades in the making. The lesson here is pretty clear – don’t short change science. Invest in research now and reap the rewards for Australia in the future," Dr Popovski said.