My View: Machine-vision patents pending

Last September, Cognex Corporation (Natick, MA) refiled its lawsuit against the Lemelson Medical, Educational, and Research Foundation, Limited Partnership.

Last September, Cognex Corporation (Natick, MA) refiled its lawsuit against the Lemelson Medical, Educational, and Research Foundation, Limited Partnership. In its complaint, Cognex seeks a declaratory judgment that a number of patents that the partnership claims cover "machine vision" are invalid and/or are unenforceable. Cognex also maintains that neither it nor any users of its products infringe on those patents, which were assigned to the partnership by the late inventor Jerome Lemelson.

"The basis of our complaint remains unchanged—the Lemelson Partnership's machine-vision patents are invalid and are unenforceable against either Cognex or our customers, and our technology does not infringe any valid Lemelson patent," says Robert J. Shillman, Cognex president. "This lawsuit is about more than just protecting the interests of our company; it is about protecting our customers and manufacturers worldwide who use our products from both the current and future threat of patent-infringement litigation by the Lemelson Partnership," Shillman added.

Effects are far reaching

The effects of the Lemelson patents are indeed far reaching. They even affect technical journalists in the trade-publishing industry. Recently, I heard from a company that I am working with on an article. After preparing a rough draft of the article, the systems integrator concerned decided it would be best to gain approval of the draft from his customer, the end user. Here is an edited version of the end user's reply:

"I spoke with Mr. X in legal this morning and he helped me understand what the problem is here. Apparently, many years ago, the Lemelson Foundation attained a very broad-based patent for using machine-vision analysis in manufacturing. We have not been able to get around the patent yet, so we are going to have to buy a license from them (Lemelson). That agreement is already underway, and they expect to have it completed by December, but he (Lemelson) couldn't promise that. So, what this means is that we cannot publish until we have a license because that would only compound our legal problems.

"We've been developing and manufacturing Product Y using vision analysis for years, and we have continued to do so with the Product Z system in violation of this patent. It really would not look good to be published when we are in violation of the patent. Mr. X's conclusion was that we should go ahead and collect all the materials we need to collect for the article.

We should also go ahead and take the photos we need, although he wants to be present for the shoot to ensure that nothing sensitive is visible within the picture. But, he (legal) needs to approve everything before it can go into publication. Additionally, he (legal) will have to hold off on approving the article until the license goes through."

Website created

Because so many companies have received notices of infringement from the Lemelson Foundation, the Competition Law Group has even created a Web site to provide a clearinghouse for basic information on Lemelson-related litigation and licensing (www.lemelsonpatents.com). Whether Lemelson's patents are valid and enforceable remain matters for patent attorneys, but the ramifications of patent battles continue to adversely affect the marketability, sales, and promotion of machine-vision and image-processing technologies.

The ramifications of patent battles continue to adversely affect the marketability, sales, and promotion of machine-vision and image-processing technologies.

Andy Wilson
Editor at Large
andyw@pennwell.com

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