Monday, August 22, 2005

A LOOK BACK ON LEMELSON: The Boston Globe has an excellent and informative restrospective on Jerome Lemelson (registration required - see BugMeNot link for access to compulsory registration pages), considered a hero or a supreme villan, depending on your outlook.

Considered the godfather of patent "trolls" and perfector of the submarine patent, critics charge that for decades Lemelson manipulated the U.S. Patent Office. They accuse him of exploiting loopholes that forced 979 companies -- including Ford, Dell, Boeing, General Electric, Mitsubishi and Motorola -- to pay $1.5 billion in licensing fees over hundreds of patents related to machine-vision technologies (which included the barcode).

On Christmas Eve in 1954, Lemelson filed a 150-page patent application with the U.S. Patent Office. The patent spelled out how a robot could perform a variety of fantastic tasks during industrial production, such as riveting, welding and transport. It also showed how a robot, armed with a camera, could serve as a quality control inspector and manage jobs that the human eye could not.

Two years later, Lemelson submitted another application expanding on the previous one. Those two applications, Lemelson asserted, contained the genesis of machine vision and computerized automatic identification, later known as bar code scanning - concepts the rest of the world wouldn't come to recognize until decades later.

Lemelson never bothered to construct a model or build a company around the designs. The patent office didn't require it. Almost none of his ideas were personally taken from the drawing board to assembly line.

"Anything he claims to have invented, he didn't. He's a science fiction writer," said Robert Shillman, founder, chairman and chief executive at Cognex Corp., the world's largest maker of machine vision products and one of Lemelson's most truculent opponents. Crediting Lemelson with machine vision is like "saying Jules Verne invented space travel," he said. "For Lemelson to get the credit for inventing machine vision and to add insult to injury, to sue people for using our machine vision is just too bitter a pill to swallow.

Shillman was founder, chairman and chief executive of Cognex Corp., a leader in machine vision technology, and he had watched as one company after another had crumbled before Lemelson's lawyers. Lemelson would claim that he had invented machine vision and held the patents; when he threatened to sue, companies would pay him off.

At the height of Lemelson's litigation efforts, he had toppled most of the large companies he went after, but Cognex Corp. was having none of it. Ultimately, they decided to bet the company that they could invalidate Lemelson's patents. In 2000, the big showdown happened, and the trial came down to the numbing testimony of 20 witnesses, more than 1 million legal documents and a staggering 1,300 exhibits. Over 27 days, the two sides hammered each other.

The court eventually found that 14 critical patent claims by Lemelson were unenforceable under a rare defense called prosecution laches -- an unreasonable delay or negligence in pursuing a right. The judge also said the claims were invalid for lack of a written description, and a person of ordinary skill could not build the inventions using Lemelson's patents as his own experts had asserted. He added that "Symbol and Cognex products do not work like anything disclosed and claimed by Lemelson."

The decision spelled the end of the Lemelson era (he died in October 1997). While his foundation continues to collect royalities on many of his other patents, the Lemelson juggernaut became a shadow of its former self.

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