A legal showdown looms over some of the world's most controversial patents. Later this year a group of manufacturing companies is scheduled to go to federal court to defang key patents held by a partnership set up before the death of Jerome Lemelson. A hero among small inventors, Lemelson garnered more than 550 patents, a number that puts him close behind Thomas Edison. Lemelson is remembered as a generous benefactor to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the Smithsonian Institution and others. But many corporations consider him an archvillain who misused the patent system to obtain claims on things he never invented.
In their view, Lemelson, who died at the age of 74 in 1997, was the unrivaled king of the "submarine" patent. The companies bringing the suits assert that by applying for additional or expanded claims--and by taking advantage of a procedure that extends the patent application process--he would continually delay the issuance of a patent. These ploys, they say, served to keep the details of a patent secret while allowing him to broaden its scope to encompass technologies invented and commercialized by others. Once a patent finally did surface--in one case almost 40 years after the filing date for claims purported to cover bar-code scanning--Lemelson systematically went about seeking licensing fees, and if companies refused, he sued them for infringement. By one estimate the Lemelson Medical, Education & Research Foundation, which holds these patents, has garnered $1.5 billion by pursuing this strategy.
This article was originally published with the title Deep-Sixing the Submarine Patent.