The Full Scoop - Kodak's actual patents, and our own analysis!|
(Monday, March 5, 2001 - 11:55 EST)
As we reported at the end of last week, Kodak's decision to enforce their rights to a number of key digital imaging patents could have a huge impact on the digicam industry. Today, we've searched-out several of the key patents involved, and provide links to them here, along with some brief comments by Dave Etchells as to their significance. (To coin a phrase, "This is Big... Really Big!" - with apologies to William Shatner...)
Given the huge potential impact on the digicam business, we thought some of our readers would be interested in seeing some of the patents Kodak is seeking to enforce against other digicam makers. We delved into the USPTO (US Patent & Trademark Office) archives, and came up with the links below, to four of the key patents involved in the case. Here's what we found:
#5,016,107: Electronic still camera utilizing image compression and digital storage - This is *incredibly* broad, as its claims cover just about any form of digital camera.(!) If this patent really stands, there's literally no way we can think of that someone could make a digital camera using current technology that wouldn't infringe on it. This looks like Kodak's strongest card, and it could be enough all by itself to force the other manufacturers into licensing agreements.
#5,477,264: Electronic imaging system using a removable software-enhanced storage device - Much more narrow, involving preloaded software/firmware on the memory card affecting operation of the camera. This directly impacts Olympus' SmartMedia cards with "panorama enabling" firmware preloaded on them, but wouldn't seem to have major impact on the general design of cameras.
#5,164,831: Electronic still camera providing multi-format storage of full and reduced resolution images - This one references "static random access memory cards", which nobody uses these days, but does cover the use of a buffer memory to permit operation of the camera at more or less normal "camera" speeds, with later writing of the data to the memory card. Again, VERY broad, as almost all digicams use some form of buffer memory. At the low end of the market, cameras may only have a single frame's worth of buffer (and hence no speed advantage from frame to frame), but it looks like this patent could be construed to cover *any* use of buffer memory, so it again could affect virtually every product in the digital camera space. (At the high end of course, most cameras use multiple frames of buffer memory, to let the camera capture images more quickly than they can be written to the memory card.)
#5,493,335: Single sensor color camera with user selectable image record size - A much narrower set of claims. This patent again mentions buffer memory, but the bulk of the claims in this patent have to do with specific subsampling techniques used to generate lower-resolution images from a higher resolution sensor. Still very significant though, since Claim 2 asserts: 2. "A camera as claimed in claim 1 in which said storing means stores a plurality of different resolution images in said output memory, depending on the resolution mode selected by said resolution mode switch for each image." This would cover virtually every digicam currently on the market (most of which offer multiple resolution options), but the claim is weakened by the phrase "A camera as claimed in claim 1", which restricts it to cameras using a specific method of subsampling the high resolution image. Possibly a big impact, but much more dependent on the lawyers and the judge...
As we searched for these patents on the USPTO web site, two things became clear:
1) The claims are exceptionally broad, and in combination cover virtually every digital camera manufactured today (or conceivably manufactured in the future).
2) Other companies have a LOT of other patent claims that likewise tie up chunks of digital camera technology. Thus, it's likely that most first-line digital camera manufacturers are likely to have complementary suites of patents that they can use to horse-trade with Kodak for rights to some of Kodak's intellectual property. Even allowing for this though, it clearly appears that Kodak has the dominant position for intellectual property in the digital photography arena.
How Kodak chooses to prosecute this advantage could determine a lot about the future of digital photography and Kodak's future profits. If they mount too heavy-handed an attack, they could literally stifle the entire digital camera marketplace: Nobody is really making significant money in the digicam market yet, so there aren't any large sums of money to be obtained by Kodak at this juncture. On the other hand, they need to put a stake in the ground and defend their IP to establish their right to future compensation. In the past, Kodak's proven to be anything but rash (its critics would claim the exact opposite), so we see hope in this both for the long-term health of the digicam business and for Kodak's profit potential. This will be an interesting drama for the digicam industry, stay tuned for further details as the story unfolds. (Note though, that the full "unfolding" of this one could easily take years, given the glacial pace of typical patent litigation.)