Tuesday, April 12, 2005

"Nano, nano"

Before it's even sold one TV, Canon and its SED Inc. joint venture with Toshiba has been sued for violating a patent license. Nano-Proprietary, Inc. owns a patent for the process of producing SED screens, but sold a royalty-free license to Canon back in 1999 for $5.5 million. That probably looked like a good deal back then, but given the potential revenues Canon is likely to get from using the license, it doesn't look so good now.

My inexpert and shallow reading of bits of the contract suggests that Nano-Proprietary will lose the suit and Canon will be able to produce SED TVs royalty-free. Canon has spent a lot of money on R&D and invested heavily in its subsidiary, so losing the license could be very costly. Therefore, it is possible that Canon will settle to avoid negative publicity and delays in the product launch. Ironically, Nano-Proprietary's very weak case increased the probability of pursuing legal action. There is very little to lose except legal fees and a remote possibility that some court or settlement could grant the company extra revenues.

Lawsuits like this one are the bread and butter of IP companies. Since a patent has a limited lifespan (unlike copyrights, which seem to be continually extended for Disney's sake), owners of patents are compelled to either develop them into products (as Canon has done) or license them at the best possible terms (as IP companies do). Sometimes patent holders sell the license too cheaply because they undervalued its potential, over-estimated its appeal, or simply were desperate for the revenue. In this case it seems Nano-Proprietary hoped that other companies would pursue SED technology and Canon would be motivated to sign an exclusive license. Its only recourse now it to attempt legal blackmail à la SCO Unix. This is just one cost of doing business for IP companies.

As a Canon shareholder, I don't think this is a huge problem. The worst case scenario would be a per unit royalty that would add to the overall cost of SED screens. More likely would be an extra lump sum payment to cover Toshiba or maybe to make the license exclusive. Most likely, this will only result in legal costs.


Anonymous said...

As somebody that has done business with ANI/Nano-Proprietary before, I can tell you the business practices of Marc Eller (CEO) and Zvi Yaniv (COO) are rather dubious. I am considering getting in touch with Canon and offering my insight.

They are getting what they deserve.

Jon Ericson said...

I didn't say it at the time, but when I wrote this post, I did think Nano-Proprietary could be an excellent short candidate. It seems like they gave away too much on the deal. Their other property might be valuable, but you have too wonder if the company will be able to licence it effectively.