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Kodak Sues Sony, Alleging Violation of Patents for Digital Photography

March 10, 2004|David Colker | Times Staff Writer

Eastman Kodak Co., the photography giant that has been struggling to get an edge in the booming market for digital cameras and camcorders, has sued Sony Corp. for allegedly using technology covered by 10 of Kodak's patents.

The suit, filed late Monday in federal court in Kodak's hometown of Rochester, N.Y., claims that Sony's cameras infringe Kodak patents for compressing, viewing and printing digital images. Some of the patents are for basic functions: For example, one is for capturing and displaying an image on a preview screen before an actual photo is taken, said Kodak spokesman Gerard Meuchner.

Sony, the top seller of digital cameras, said it would fight the suit. "Sony has not violated any Kodak patent relating to digital imaging and will vigorously defend any allegations made in this regard," said John Dolak, a spokesman for the Tokyo-based company.

Neither Sony nor Kodak officials would disclose how much income they have derived from still and video digital cameras, but the global market totals $21 billion and is growing.

Approximately 46 million digital still cameras and 7.2 million digital camcorders were sold around the world last year, according to Chris Chute, senior analyst at International Data Corp. in Framingham, Mass. He forecast a 28% jump this year in sales of digital still cameras alone.

Kodak, which ranks fifth in the world in sales of digital still cameras, recently introduced six models in an effort to catch up to Sony.

"It's hard to tell whether Kodak is doing this to try and generate cash or weaken Sony," Chute said of the suit. "But from the consumer perspective it probably doesn't matter. Even if Sony lost this suit, I don't think it would mean they would raise the price of their cameras."

Ben Borson, a San Francisco lawyer who is on the State Bar of California's patent committee, said cases like this could take years to wind through the courts. "In many cases you have a 300-pound gorilla going after a smaller company. In this case, you have two 300-pound gorillas going after each other, so there is a lot of money at stake," Borson said.

Kodak filed a similar suit against Sanyo Electric Co. in 2001. It was dropped after the companies agreed to cross-license their digital camera technologies.

In addition to Sanyo, Kodak licenses its digital camera technology to at least 10 other companies, said Meuchner, who declined to say how much money those licenses bring in.

The patents involved in the Sony suit were issued between 1987 and 2003. Kodak is seeking compensation for patent infringement and wants Sony to pay royalties, change its cameras or stop selling them.

Kodak's name is synonymous with the development of film photography, and the company's reliance on film sales made it reluctant to push into the market for digital cameras. Last year, Chief Executive Daniel A. Carp announced that Kodak would refocus on digital photography, and he slashed the company's dividend to fund the shift. In January, Kodak announced it would stop making consumer film cameras for sale in the United States.

Bloomberg News and Associated Press contributed to this report.

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