Get the Picture?

Patent intimidation

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Back in mid-2006—an epoch ago in the consumer electronics field—Toshiba and Canon wowed the trade show circuit with a next-generation flat-panel TV. Turning to old cathode-ray tube technology for low power consumption and inky, cinema-like blacks at low light levels, the sets were expected to replace both plasma and LCD screens in the near future. Then America's convoluted intellectual property regime kicked into action.

Nano-Proprietary, a tiny Austin company with 35 employees and just over $1 million in 2006 revenue, sued Canon for breach of contract. The Texas court sided with Nano in February: Canon had licensed one of Nano's many patents in the sketchy field of "carbon nanotubes," and the court held that Canon couldn't go into business with Toshiba to produce screens using that technology. Meanwhile, Nano found a component manufacturer in Taiwan and is trying to produce its own sets while turning down a new licensing deal with Canon/Toshiba.

The upshot is that surface-conduction electron-emitter display sets, described by Sound and Vision magazine as "potential plasma killers," are nowhere to be found. Rival technology from a Sony-led group will beat the contested sets to market. But beware. Nano has floated the notion that "even companies developing…non-carbon based field emission displays may be required to license other portions of our patent portfolio in order to bring a product to market."

So once again vague patents are blocking innovation rather than encouraging it. Nano's "patent portfolio," if it does reflect actual technical leadership in the field, should position the company to bring products to market, not just to charge a toll on others wishing to do so.

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