Jeremy Hylton : weblog : 2004-01-26

Lemelson Patents Are Invalid

Monday, January 26, 2004

Several of Jerome Lemelson's patents on machine vision were invalidated by a federal judge in Las Vegas today. Lemelson described himself as a prolific inventor, but the recent ruling is further evidence that he was just a prolific writer of generic patent applications. He did earn more than a billion dollars in royalties for his submarine patents and even got MIT's stamp-of-approval by donating $6.5 million for an annual inventor

Lemelson's bio on the MIT site says:

Lemelson's breakthrough invention, and the one for which he was most proud, was a universal robot that could measure, weld, rivet, transport and inspect for quality control -- capabilities made possible by machine vision, a new technology that used computers to analyze digitized images captured from a video camera.... Today this concept, machine vision, is used by automotive and electronic companies the world over for automated precision manufacturing.

It is exactly these patents that the judge declared invalid and unenforceable. Lemelson has collected more than $1.5 billion in license fees for these and other patents. With that kind of money at stake, I can only assume that decision will be appealed.

A recent article in IEEE Spectrum offers a different and more compelling view:

His detractors attribute much of his success to the use of Byzantine tactics for exploiting loopholes in the patent system. Even Arthur Lieberman, his former attorney, believes he simply had a knack for figuring out where an industry was headed, and then claiming that he had already been there.
Later it elaborates:
[Pre-1995 patent rules] allowed clever applicants like Lemelson (with the aid of their patent attorneys) to secretly postpone, amend, and supplement their patent applications with generic terminology until they covered commercially successful products that came into existence many years after the patent application process was initiated.

When we covered the MIT-Lemelson prize at The Tech, we didn't know much about Lemelson beyond what the News Office was telling us. We should have asked why we had never heard of someone who claimed to have invented key components of camcorders, compact disk players, and fax machines.

Looking back on the original article, it's interesting to see that none of the MIT people quoted saying anything about Lemelson's accomplishments. Glen L. Urban, then the Dean of the Sloan School of Management, said the money would be very good for Sloan and offered that Lemelson "has a grand vision here of trying to make invention as salient as being an athletic hero to young people."