A concert pianist is suing Compaq Computer for $US10.2 billion.
Ergonome, a company co-founded by professional musician Stephanie Brown, is seeking damages from Compaq for infringement of copyrights and fraud related to Compaq's alleged printing of portions of Ergonome's copyrighted material.
Ergonome published a book called 'Preventing Computer Injury: The HAND Book', which is based on its patented, ergonomic keyboard technique created by pianist Brown, according to Kent Rowald, partner at Vaden, Eickenroht & Thompson and Ergonome's counsel.
The suit charges that in 1994 Compaq requested a licensing agreement to include Ergonome's book with every Compaq computer sold but that the deal was never finalised, according to Rowald. Nonetheless, Compaq included copyrighted portions of the book in the 1994 edition of Compaq's 'Safety & Comfort Guide', he said.
Ergonome filed the complaint before the Federal District Court for the Southern District of New York last April, and Compaq is attempting to have the case heard in its home state of Texas, according to Rowald. The jurisdicational question has not yet been settled, but the case is headed for jury trial, he said.
"It's purely a matter of are we going to try this case in Houston or are we going to try it in New York," Rowald said.
According to the complaint, Compaq has distributed at least 21 million copies of its guide, which included the portions of Ergonome's own book. If Ergonome had sold 21 million books, at $7.95 a copy the company would have grossed around $166 million, Rowald said. Ergonome is also maintaining that Compaq received an additional benefit of around $4 billion from heading off potential liability for keyboard-related injuries, he said.
The remaining $6 billion of the $10 billion Ergonome is seeking is for punitive damages, because Ergonome is alleging that Compaq was deliberately deceptive.
"We're saying they ought to get punished for that," Rowald said.
One legal expert said that though seeking high punitive damages -- in this case one and one-half times the actual damages -- can be a way to grab headlines, juries typically award high punitive damages only if they find a defendant's wrongdoing was severe.
"It often happens that punitive damages are substantially higher (than actual damages) but it usually requires substantial evidence of really bad faith," said Bob Schneider, a partner Chapman & Cutler in Chicago.