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Update - Kodak Patents: Not So Strong?
(Wednesday, March 7, 2001 - 15:41 EST)

After posting our article on the Kodak digicam patent battle earlier this week, we received a couple of emails from readers, shedding more light on the situation, and offering some opinions on the possible validity (or lack thereof) of the Kodak claims.

Reader Martin Reynolds had the following comments to offer, as well as an interesting reference to a prior patent that we'd missed in our cursory scan of the Kodak documents. Here's Martin:

"A quick review of the patent indicates that Kodak acknowledges the pre-existence of the digital camera CCD->storage. Their patent appears to relate to the use of a storage buffer from which the compression is done, implicitly capable of storing multiple pictures.

"An electronic still camera employing nonvolatile storage of digital image signals is described in U.S. Pat. No. 4,489,351. Analog color information from three charge-coupled device (CCD) image sensors is converted into a digital bit stream and transmitted through a peripheral memory control unit to an integrated circuit memory."

That would seem to narrow the scope quite a lot. (that patent is almost expired)."

Interested readers can find the referenced patent on the USPTO's (US Patent and Trademark Organization) web site here: #4,489,351.

This patent is interesting, in that it indeed does mention many of the "generic" components of a digital camera, including sensor, controller, A/D converter, buffer memory, and memory "cassette" (read: Memory Card). (Check out that rotary memory cassette though! I guess this was from the days when you'd be doing good to store a single image on a chip, way before anyone conceived of memory cards with 512 meg in an area the size of a large stamp!)

Of course, there's always the issue of whether a company owns the intellectual property or not, just because they had the audacity to claim it in a patent application. Reader Gary Siftar offered the following comments on the various patents and their claims, along with an observation about the USPTO in general. Here's Gary:

"The US patent (and trademark) office has been issuing patents where there should be none. Only unique and non-obvious things should be patented.

Re: #5,016,107 - Electronic still camera utilizing image compression and digital storage. People have been compressing digital data and storing it for years. Having a unique algorithm might be patentable, but this patent is way too broad.

Re: #5,477,264 - Electronic imaging system using a removable software-enhanced storage device. Various systems have had PCMCIA cards with microcode in them for years, and before that floppies. Using them to enhance their device is old technology. It would be like someone patenting wheels for a car, and me patenting a wheel for a bicycle, and someone else patenting a wheel for a lawnmower.

Re: #5,164,831 - Electronic still camera providing multi-format storage of full and reduced resolution images. If the main issue is buffered memory in a camera, my statement on the wheel applies. People have been using buffered memory for over 25 years.

The various camera makers need to figure out which ones of Kodak patents are enforceable, and that they need. Perhaps as a group they can get at least these three thrown out, or at the very least have the claims reduced to only unique ideas.

Kodak has been a real innovator and next to IBM, and the old Bell labs has been a leader in engineering and protecting intellectual ideas. They deserve to have protection for their innovation, but we need to reign in the patent office, and this looks like a good place to start."

Worthwhile observations all, many thanks to Martin and Gary for taking the time to write. It does seem that the earlier patent #4,489,351 would significantly weaken some of the claims of the principle Kodak one. Likewise Gary raises good points about some of the other issues.

As Gary noted, the USPTO has come under increasing fire in recent years, for granting patents that are either (a) absurdly broad, or (b) that involve "common sense", obvious, or generally-understood prior technology, rather than unique innovations. Whether the Kodak patents at issue here will fall into any of these categories isn't clear at this point. Kodak has clearly invested a tremendous amount in digital imaging R&D for a number of years now though, so it's likely that they'll emerge from the fray with at least some valid, patentable issues. As we noted previously, the impact of this could be huge on the digicam business as a whole, not to mention Kodak's bottom line for years to come.

All in all, this is a very interesting development in the digicam world, and one that we'll continue to follow as the weeks/months (years?) go by.

Thanks again to Martin and Gary for their thoughtful input!

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