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Rockwell Defends Expired Patent

Photonics Spectra
Sep 2000
Gaynell Terrell

The patent on a process held by a division of Rockwell International Corp. expired in January, but that hasn't stopped the company from defending it in court. The targets of Thousand Oaks, Calif.-based Rockwell Technologies LLC are Spectra-Physics Lasers Inc. of Mountain View, Calif., and its manufacturing subsidiary, Opto Power Corp. of Tucson, Ariz.

Rockwell patented a process for metallorganic chemical vapor deposition in 1983 and licensed the technology to about 50 manufacturers worldwide. In a suit dated June 19 filed in district court in Delaware, Rockwell charges that Opto Power used the process to produce epitaxial films of semiconductors on single crystal substrates and that Spectra-Physics purchased and/or sold the wafers. Rockwell seeks unspecified but triple damages for the defendants' "intentional, willful and deliberate" actions.

Spectra-Physics President Patrick Edsell said that the patent had expired and that Rockwell is simply seeking damages. "[Rockwell] just can't wander around the world saying anyone who manufactures a gallium arsenide device is using [its] process. There are different types of reactors. Each case is different. We will defend that position vigorously."

James O'Shaughnessy, lead patent attorney for Rockwell Technologies, acknowledged that the patent expired this year but maintained that the company is entitled to royalties for the process from those companies that have used it over the last six years. "There are 50 companies around the world ... among the who's who of large and prosperous companies ... who have honored this patent and paid royalties," he said. "It is our business obligation to make them perceive they have gotten value and that it is prudent to pay. Unfortunately, there are several companies that require the intervention of a court."

Managing patent portfolios is becoming more common as companies find value in previously overlooked intellectual property. "The value of that technology is latent," O'Shaughnessy said. "It is our job to convert it into shareholder value" by licensing or partnering.

Rockwell filed a similar patent infringement suit in 1995 in federal district court in California against another industry leader, SDL Inc. of San Jose, Calif. That case was put on hold while yet another Rockwell suit, this one against the US government (SDL became a party to the suit), was settled, with the government paying Rockwell $16.9 million last year. The SDL case now has a trial date in April. CEO Donald R. Scifres would not comment on the suit, but a company securities filing states that SDL believes the patent is invalid and that Rockwell is guilty of undue delay in asserting its legal claim.

Earlier this year, Rockwell dropped a patent infringement suit without prejudice against Alhambra, Calif.-based, Ortel Inc., now the microelectronics unit of Lucent Technologies Inc. of Murray Hill, N.J. A spokesman for Lucent would neither confirm nor deny whether Lucent had settled the suit.

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