Robert C. Pini
A machine vision maker, Cognex Corp., has sued the Lemelson Medical, Education and Research Foundation LP, which holds patents on bar-code reading and machine vision technology. The suit seeks to overturn the partnership's patents and to obtain a ruling declaring them invalid and unenforceable.
Michael Steir, legal director for Cognex, said the company filed suit to protect its customers. "We want to have customers be able to buy products from Cognex and use them directly or resell without facing the threat of legal action," he said.
The Lemelson partnership holds patents assigned to it by the late Jerome Lemelson, a prolific inventor whose machine vision patents have become controversial because the applications were filed in the 1950s and 1960s, but patents were not issued until the 1980s and early 1990s.
Lemelson attorney Louis Hoffman declined to comment on the suit except to reiterate, "It's not our strategy to pursue makers of machine vision equipment. We haven't done so, and we won't. We're interested in the users of machine vision." The partnership claims licensing agreements with many end users of machine vision systems, such as the Ford Motor Co. and Mitsubishi Electric Corp., which have integrated the systems into their manufacturing operations.
In July the partnership filed suit against 26 US chip makers, including Intel Corp., in US District Court in Arizona for patent infringement (see Photonics Spectra, October 1998, p. 64). Hoffman said at press time that the partnership had settled with four of the chip makers and expects to conclude settlements with an additional eight companies soon.
Despite the series of settlements, many senior engineers and designers in the machine vision industry view Jerome Lemelson's patents with skepticism. They claim the inventor offered little to the industry in terms of "enabling disclosures," or specific methods that would allow them to apply the ideas in the patents.
According to Steir, Cognex first considered filing the suit in June when Ford settled with the partnership. Though terms of that settlement remain undisclosed, it became apparent to Cognex officials that their company was uniquely positioned to address technological issues related to machine vision patent claims. "[The Lemelson partnership] wanted him to get credit for being the father of machine vision," Steir commented. "We question whether he is the father. We doubt that his machine vision patents are enforceable and that they are valid."
The Lemelson partnership received a 30-day extension until early December to respond to the suit.