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Key battles in the Lemelson patent war

Jerome H. Lemelson made his fortune as a prolific inventor. Unlike most entrepreneurs who start a business to develop and market their own inventions, Lemelson profited from licensing agreements for his patents. Over several decades, corporations have paid Lemelson close to $1-billion in licensing agreements after the inventor sued, alleging violations of his many patents. Lemelson died in 1997, but a partnership called the Lemelson Medical, Education & Research Foundation continues to pressure companies to pay for the use of widely adopted technology _ mostly machine vision and bar-code technology _ that Lemelson claims he invented. Here are highlights of Lemelson's patent war.

+ Lemelson files a patent application for machine vision in 1954 and again in 1956. While the first patent is issued in 1963, additional patents are not issued until the 1980s, after machine-vision technology is in widespread use.

+ In 1974, Lemelson wins one of his more lucrative licensing arrangements with Sony Corp., which uses his patented audiocassette drive mechanism in the Sony Walkman and in turn licenses the technology to other manufacturers.

+ In 1982, Lemelson sues Bendix Corp. and the Brown & Sharpe Manufacturing Co., claiming they conspired to boycott his patents relating to automatic measuring machines used in inspecting parts.

+ In 1989, Lemelson obtains a $71.2-million judgment against toymaker Mattel Inc. for infringing on a patent he says covered the flexible track used by the popular Hot Wheels toy. The toymaker appealed and won. The case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which sided with Mattel _ a rare setback for Lemelson.

+ In 1991, a Delaware court orders a division of Illinois Tool Works to pay Lemelson $17-million for infringing a patent on robot paint sprayers.

+ In 1992, Japan's 12 major automobile manufacturers agree to pay Lemelson about $100-million for machine vision patents that outline basic ways to use robots and bar-code scanning systems that are now crucial in factories.

+ In 1992, Apple Computer is charged with infringing on computer graphics patents. Apple settles out of court acquiring rights to Lemelson's entire patent portfolio.

+ In 1997, Lemelson dies at age 74, leaving his nine-figure fortune to the Lemelson Foundation. The partnership continues Lemelson's active legal assault on corporations' alleged infringements of Lemelson patents.

+ In June 1998, the nation's three big automakers _ Ford Motor Co., General Motors Corp. and Chrysler Corp. _ agree to pay multimillion-dollar licensing fees after a nine-year battle. By this year, more than 250 companies have settled with Lemelson and agreed to pay for patent licenses.

+ In July 1998, the Lemelson partnership sues Intel Corp. and 25 other semiconductor companies claiming infringement of Lemelson's patents in the manufacture of semiconductor devices. The case is pending.

+ In October 1998, Cognex Corp., a leader in the development of machine vision technology, sues to invalidate Lemelson's 15 machine vision patents. Cognex, based in Natick, Mass., says it brought the suit because the Lemelson partnership threatened to bring patent infringement lawsuits against many of its customers, who in turn asked Cognex to defend or indemnify them in the event of a suit. The case is pending.

+ In February, the Lemelson partnership sues 88 high-tech companies, including Jabil Circuit in St. Petersburg, alleging they are violating patents that cover the scanning and inspection of wafers. The case is pending.

+ In July, seven companies involved in bar-code technology sue the Lemelson Foundation, saying the partnership's claims that end users of bar-code technology have infringed on Lemelson patents are invalid. The case is pending.

Source: Times research