Lemelson's Legacy: Great Inventor Or Patent Hoarder?

from the take-your-pick dept

It seems like we can barely go a day without coming across some story of ridiculous patent hoarding by a company that clearly didn’t do anything innovative or new, but which is holding plenty of other companies (who actually did innovate and did bring a product to market) for ransom. If you ask the folks at these patent hoarding companies (often made up entirely of one or two lawyers) where they got the idea for this business plan, many would likely point to Jerome Lemelson, the well known patenter who turned those patents into millions of dollars from companies. The Associated Press has an in-depth look at Jerome Lemelson’s legacy, and the fact that many consider him a complete fraud. Throughout the entire process of getting plenty of large companies to pay him for ideas that it seems quite likely they came up with outside of Lemelson’s patents, he kept pushing forward claiming he needed to win these lawsuits to get the respect he deserved. It’s hard to see how sitting on the sidelines, waiting for someone else to do something innovative, and then suing is deserving of respect, however. As you read through the cases, it seems clear that Lemelson’s strategy is being followed by so many companies today, as a form of legalized extortion. Companies feel they need to pay up a settlement fee because it’s cheaper than going to court, especially with the risk of a loss — which, with a jury trial, is something that can certainly happen. In Lemelson’s case, even judges looking over his claims admitted that it was clear he was “abusing” the patent system — and yet, his successes have made it the norm today. Lemelson’s patents were often based simply on ideas, rather than anything he implemented — leading one of his critics to refer to him as a “science fiction writer” rather than an inventor, and claiming that “crediting Lemelson with machine vision is like ‘saying Jules Verne invented space travel.'”

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Comments on “Lemelson's Legacy: Great Inventor Or Patent Hoarder?”

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Anonymous of Course says:

It's Serial Patent Abuse

Here’s the plan. Look at the direction an industry is heading. File a vague patent. As the industry develops keep tweaking your patent with continuation filings until your patent covers a real product. Then sue the users, not the manufacturers of the product, demanding licensing fees and you have a real cash cow. It’s been a long time coming but hopefully the courts will end this practice. I wouldn’t call Lemmelson a great inventor. In my opinion he was a technological con man. But he made a lot of money and won prestigious awards… go figure.

BG says:

Possible direction...

A grassroots designed software engine/program that seeks out filings of patents through a patent portals and analyzes them for possible inventive redundancies and capriciousness…maybe creating an additional filter of legitimate, but fair review of the process. Summaries could be automatically be sent to congressmen and/or administration officials en masse to exert some influence.

Mark Fox (user link) says:

Second part of article

The second part of the article shows how a company founded by a MIT professor sued Lemelson’s foundation and proved that Lemelson’s machine vision patents were junk.
The best part is that the company that sued really didn’t need to do so, for the most part its founder was just angry about Lemelson claiming to “invent” stuff he didn’t.

Small Inventor says:

Lemelson story

Lemelson is a very complex story. Unfortunately, the AP writer got it largely wrong. Lemelson was a brilliant inventor. The combined breadth and depth of his work, which ranged from automated factories to computers, to VCRs, to toys is breathtaking. He has been much vilified in the press, where, unlike in the patent system, there is no special protection for a little guy with a big idea, because his success came at the expense of some of the most vocal and most powerful companies in the world. The article fails to mention the non-profit Lemelson foundation which, partnering with the likes of MIT and the Smithsonian, has given close to $100 million to advance the practice of invention and innovation in this country, which is experiencing a serious decline by many metrics. Powerful interests have used Lemelson as a political football while smearing his name to serve their own desire to close off the ladder to success through innovation that the patent system was intended to be. They chose to that rather than compete in an open marketplace or pay for a license. Current legislation under the Patent Reform Act of 2005 is an attempt to build upon earlier legislation to further weaken the patent system, upon which this country achieved much of its current greatness. Soon, it will be little more than another corporate giveaway. In technology, in business, as in everything else, the old must give way to the new. Any attempts to prevent this from happening will be to our ultimate detriment.

I know better says:

Re: Lemelson story

I was involved with the litlgation that ended Lemelsons hold pn barcode scanners and machine vision. That case clearly showed that Lemelson didn’t invent the technology used today. Instead, he modified and re-interpreted old patent applications to the point where he could make it sound like he invented the technology that was being used. The court found that his patents were unenforceable due to Prosecutation Latches, invalid due to failure to adequately describe how his “inventions” could be built at the time they were filed, and not infringed, because the technology described in his patents, and the technology used today are not even remotely alike. The plain truth is that he didn’t invent the technology that is used today, but he did extort 1.5 billion dollars out of hundreds of companies based on threats of patent suits.
The companys that finally exposed him (Symbol Technologies and Cognex) are not at all the largest companys in the world. In fact, Lemelson had a larger budget to defend himself with than they did, due to all of the money he had extorted. His donations to schools and hospitals doesn’t excuse his behavior. He was very generous with other peoples money.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Lemelson story

Please!!! how can you stancd there and bash a man who defended what was his. Do you honestly believe that if a lone inventor came up with a multi billion dollar invention that big buisness companies would just stand behind him and let him reap all the profits?!?!?! They tried to destroy him b/c he was going to make more money then them. Extortion! this is absurd!!! if he could prove that he invented it then he did, if the companies had then he wouldn’t have won those lawsuits!

Sam Shipkovitz says:


I worked for Jerry as an associate patent attorney for Ron Snider many years ago. Jerry was a very knoweldgeable visionery–who did know the technologies available to implement embodimnts of his inventions, but some of which could not operate in real time using the emobodiments aavailabler at the time of original filing. He did continuations and cips with the next generation embodiments and when real time embodiments were available the patents issued. For example, his painting robot patent where I was one of his expert witnesses.
He also was a gentleman – and modest–who often took me to supper when in the D.C. area.
I liked the guy, and have only find memories of a brilliant older short modest man of my religious background and had integrity. In this age of corruption at the PTO where companies lobby to get reexams from the Director [Commr.] and get them [ and see Comptons and others before], he was not a “submariner, but a brilliant engineer who knew a patent’s limited time value need begin only when the apparatus patented can actually be used practically.
May His Soul Rest In Peace
Sam Shipkovitz
P.O. Box 2961
Arlington, VA 22202

Eric Lemelson says:


oops – didn’t realize my response would be public!

My father’s story is a bit more complex than last year’s AP article attempted to illustrate – in fact it was a pretty lame effort. The reporter was apparently looking to boost his career, and after this sensationalist piece was published he got what he wanted – a promotion.

Anyone who knew my father realizes that portraying him as submarine patent king is bullshit – that it serves corporate America quite well, but says nothing about his career, his vision, the body of his work, or his commitment to the individual American inventor. But it is alot easier to smear him than to tell the true story. Perhaps that will change with time.

Walter Dnes says:


> Anyone who knew my father realizes that
> portraying him as submarine patent king is bullshit

Lemme see. Files patent applications in 1954 and 1956. Slows down
their progress so that they aren’t granted till 1963. Add 17 years, and they should still expire in 1980.

From the article

> While battling the Japanese, Hosier had also started sending
> form letters to hundreds of companies in 1989, accusing
> them of infringing Lemelson’s machine vision and bar code
> patents.

That’s *THIRTY-FIVE YEARS AFTER THE ORIGINAL PATENT APPLICATION*. It’a also *TWENTY-SIX YEARS AFTER THE ORIGINAL PATENTS WERE GRANTED*. Patents are supposed to last 17 years. Unless you claim that these statements of fact are outright lies, he was gaming the system; perfectly legally I might add, but I question the ethics. If you claim this isn’t submarining and gaming the system, then what exactly do you call it???

Mr. Lemelson was a small-time inventor who did make a few useful inventions, and would’ve retired being financially comfortable from his real inventions. However, he wasn’t satisfied with enough, and wanted more, more, more. The result was that he was always going after big targets with deep pockets. When you attack enough big guys, you’ll eventually run into some who will fight back, and one who will win.

Rein Teder (user link) says:

Spoiling it for the rest of us...

The patent system is just about the only tool independent inventors have to defend against the big boys. When that tool is used to protect hard-won IP, justice is served. But when the system is used to extort money from those doing the real work of innovation, it wrecks it for us smaller guys.

Me, I’d like to see the patent process include an affidavit that you actually got a (however imperfectly) working prototype.

an inventor with some patents to his name says:

Get the USPTO to disallow continuation filings or

Define the maximum allowed evaluation time for a patent to be just one year would be a simple solution. If the USPTO cannot decide within a year, the application is just void. Voluntary donations of companies to fund the evaluations (of all) patents is then an easy way to ensure patents will actually do get a review within the year. Of course, people will say this is unfair, but so is the automatic extension in time by the USPTO.

But more important: continuation filings are really a problem and should disallowed. And withdrawal of any application ought to cause a delayed publication of the application by the USPTO after 17/2 years (after the filing date).

The whole society pays for the prolonged time it takes to get a patent evaluated. Look at what happens to the price of a medicin when it goes off patent: Typically it drops to less than 1/2 … just count the billions we all spend too much.

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