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Dutch PC maker takes Dell to court

Tulip Computers is accusing the computing giant of infringing on its patent for a motherboard design. The Netherlands-based company is seeking unspecified royalties.

Trial proceedings started Monday in a patent-infringement case that pits Dutch PC maker Tulip Computers International against Dell Computer.

Amersfoort, Netherlands-based Tulip filed suit in November 2000, accusing Dell of infringing on its patent for a motherboard design. Tulip is seeking unspecified royalties.

The patent at issue in the case covers the placement of an expansion card slot in a motherboard that enables PC makers to create desktop computers that are smaller, have a more efficient cooling system, and can communicate more effectively with connected devices.

Tulip said Dell has used the patented technology in its OptiPlex machines, the company's corporate desktop line. Tulip claims the infringement has resulted in more than $17 billion worth of sales for Dell.

Neither Dell nor Tulip immediately responded to requests for comment on the trial, which is taking place in federal court in Delaware and is expected to last about two weeks.

John Farrell, a partner at Carr & Farrell who specializes in patent issues, said he would be surprised if the disputed technology had influenced the sales of OptiPlex computers in any way. Nevertheless, he said, even small inventions can be quite lucrative if the technology is incorporated into popular machines. Farrell said that if a jury agrees that Dell is guilty of patent infringement, the computer giant will have to pay up. He compared patent infringement with running a stop sign, because there are very few legal excuses. "You do the crime, you pay the fine," he said.

Intellectual-property disputes have become more pronounced in recent years, particularly in the technology arena, where companies bet their business on inventions. In a case that's sent shivers through the open-source community, SCO Group has claimed that IBM and other companies owe it billions in damages for allegedly lifting some of its proprietary Unix intellectual property and incorporating it into Linux.

CNET's Ben Charny contributed to this report.