LED patent dispute could block Blu-ray, cellphone imports

The United States International Trade Commission (USITC) has begun an investigation into a list of companies that reads like a Who's Who in the modern electronics industry. At issue is whether or not the companies in question have infringed upon a series of patents held by Dr. Gertrude Neumark Rothschild. The patents in question have not been specifically identified, but they cover "short-wavelength (e.g., blue, violet) LEDs and laser diodes that are used in products such as handheld mobile devices, instrument panels, billboards, traffic lights, HD DVD players (e.g., Blu-ray disc players), and data storage devices."

Given the scope of the claim, the number of companies named in the complaint is unsurprisingly high. Highlights from the list include Hitachi, LG, Lite-On, Matsushita, Motorola, Nokia, Pioneer, Samsung, Sanyo, Sharp, Sony, Sony Ericsson, and Toshiba. Normally, a list of patent-infringing companies that includes world+dog is a good sign that a troll is at work, but the woman behind this particular lawsuit, Gertrude Neumark Rothschild, appears to be more than your average bridge-dweller. In fact, she's an expert in LEDs and has been for longer than many of us have been alive.

Rothschild is the Howe Professor Emerita of Material Science and Engineering and Professor Emerita of Applied Physics and Applied Mathematics at Columbia University, where she's taught and worked since 1985. She graduated from Barnard College in 1948 and earned her Ph.D. in chemistry from Columbia in 1951. In between her graduation and return to Columbia, she spent time first at Sylvania Research Laboratories and then at Philips Laboratories. She also holds several patents that cover the production of wide band-gap semiconductors in the blue/ultraviolet range (these are presumably the patents at issue, though patent numbers are not given), and she worked specifically in the development of gallium-nitride-based semiconductors.

There's little to indicate that Dr. Rothschild has decided to launch such an endeavor as a means of commemorating her imminent octogenarian status. This isn't the first time, however, that the good doctor has filed suit against major companies she felt were engaged in patent infringement. She previously filed suit against both Toyoda Gosei and Philips Lumined over their alleged infringement of US Patent No. 4,904,618 ("Process for Doping Crystals of Wide Band-Gap Semiconductors") and 5,252,499 ("Wide Band-Gap Semiconductors Having Low Bipolar Resistivity and Method of Formation"). The suits were eventually settled out of court.

Whether her claims prove valid or not, Dr. Rothschild has established herself as a woman who is willing to play hardball. Sony and the other manufacturers named have yet to officially respond to the allegations, but they're unlikely to look kindly on a IP holder challenging their collective rights to build the electronic devices (and Blu-ray players) currently driving the next generation of tech adoption.

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