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Patently absurd? – Andy McCourt’s ReVerb

Wednesday, 19 August 2015
By Andy McCourt
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Thomas Alva Edison famously bought a prior patent for the lightbulb to avert any future challenges to his own ‘improved’ patent. Since then, patents have been a regular battleground for genuinely aggrieved patent holders, opportunistic ‘patent trolls’ and chancers.

Apple Inc. was regularly attacked by parties claiming patent rights to little bits of software and apps used in its iPhones – some successful, others not or settled for some ‘please go away’ money. As recently as February, a Texas court ordered Apple to pay USD$533 million to SmartFlash (who?) for alleged infringement of iTunes patents. Apple is appealing (or should that be a-peeling?)

The popular .jpeg photo file compression code was meant to be a free licence to everyone but between 2002 and ‘06 a US company named Forgent pressed for patent infringements against just about everyone who ever made a digital camera or phone. It was eventually deemed non-enforceable due to a factor known as ‘prior art’ – it existed before to you and me – but not before Forgent had dragged over $100 million in license fees from acquiescent companies.

In the printing industry, Xeikon was sued by Xerox in 1996, alleging patent infringement of Chester Carlson’s xerography. It was ultimately settled by Xeikon agreeing to make printers based on their DCP-1 web machine for Xerox to sell, but the arrangement led to Xeikon’s bankruptcy in 2002 before being purchased from the liquidators by Punch International, who sold its stake to private equity firm Bencis Capital in 2013. Since then Xeikon has gone from strength-to-strength.

The patent system is a great way to protect inventions but, in America, alleging patent infringement has become an industry in itself, to the point that President Obama made it a mission to reform US patent law but admits to being ‘only about halfway there.’

So what’s Memjet’s claim all about? The 5,000-plus patents they accessed from Australian Kia Silverbrook cover a galaxy of possibilities. Silverbrook was the most prolific US patent lodger in the world and is still top of the list with over 9,000 patents granted in his name. As late as 2000, Thomas Edison was still the world’s number one patent holder.

With the caveat that I am not a patent attorney, nor examiner, it seems that the main objections Memjet has against HP’s use of inkjet relate to the use of static, page-wide arrays of printheads rather than those that scan from side-to-side. Memjet cites infringement of its ‘Waterfall’ printhead technology but this appears unlikely given that Memjet’s is a monolithic 222.8mm (8.77”) MEMS-engineered bar with over 70,000 nozzles whereas HP’s approach is an array of smaller printheads and inkjet chips totaling around 40,000 nozzles – using technology it has owned for many years.

HP's OfficeJet Pro X printhead

Everybody’s doing it

Printhead arrays are nothing new and some inkjet printers can have as many as 1,024 printheads in arrays to achieve wider page widths. Memjet is fantastic technology but even it must use a staggered array to achieve its wide format 42-inch (1067mm) swathe, so five Waterfall heads are used, yielding potential 43.85” but in reality 42” because of overlapping the stagger to avoid banding. HP uses eight of its printheads in a staggered array but at 40” (1016mm) page width for its CAD/GIS/AEC-focused wide format products. The printheads HP uses in these arrays have been made in their own factories for years – all they have done is join a few together and have done so since 2006. They also use pigmented inks, not dye ink as per Memjet currently.

Epson has a similar approach with its PrecisionCore technology; smaller printheads staggered and daisy-chained to make a page-wide (A4 that is) array, and very nice it is too – piezo not thermal like HP and Memjet. Impika (now owned by Xerox) were using page-wide arrays of Panasonic printheads back in 2004. It’s called scaleable architecture and everybody in IT and computers does it with their core technologies.

HP has been making thermal printheads since the early 1980s. By developing new inkjet chips and inks, it is today able to scale its core technology as wide as 2.8 metres, as with its jointly developed with KBA packaging press based on its successful ‘T’ series of high volume inkjet web presses (also cited in the Memjet patent suit). To the lay patent examiner, this would appear to be ‘prior art.’ What will need to be determined in the Memjet-vs-HP patent case is if the joining together of what you already manufacture and hold patents for is an infringement. I am sure that if I add extra RAM to my computer or if a train operator adds extra engines to haul a long train from a Pilbara mine – it would hardly constitute patent infringement.

Other aspects of Memjet’s published claim cover ‘Fault tolerance using adjacent nozzles’ which sounds like nozzle mapping and redundancy to me; if a nozzle blocks, the next one takes over. Again, just about every inkjet printer manufacturer does this today. Another is a ‘Modular printhead assembly with a carrier of a metal alloy.’ On this we get back to scaling existing technology and holding it all together by using metal; seems fair dealing with what is owned already to me! If HP is singled out, the likes of Fujifilm Dimatix, Kyocera, Canon, Xaar, Xerox, Epson, Landa, Screen, Ricoh, Inca and countless others will have to be included, which will mean Memjet might have to take on the entire modern inkjet printing world.

Of course, if some itty-bitty piece of Memjet patented technology is found inside an HP product and no license fee has been paid for it’ Memjet will have right of redress but it would be hard to believe that a company of HP’s size and experience would allow this to happen – especially since, with Canon – they invented thermal inkjet in the first place!

In the world of patent litigation, anything can happen and HP will no doubt respond in a very robust manner but I do not believe it will halt the development and marketing of its Pro-X office, PageWide XL series or T-series web presses of which there are several in Australia. The Memjet-powered RTI Vortex, Xante Excelgraphic, Canon ColorWave 900 and Xerox DocuWide 842 will continue to provide excellent alternatives and an extra 2” of print width in the CAD/GIS/AEC sector (a cmyk dye-based solution won’t cut it in all but shortest-term signage and display.)

Invention and creativity are essential for our industry and long may it continue. In the end, this stoush, like so many US-style courtroom battles, might get down to the basic question: “How much?” How long is another matter.



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