ITC Investigation Into Mfg. Processes Could Shut Down HDD Imports

In what could be an unprecedented patent infringement claim with the capability to shut down the imports of hard disk drives made by Seagate, Toshiba, and Western Digital, the US International Trade Commission announced yesterday it will take seriously a claim of patent infringement made by the inventors of a circuit board manufacturing process.

By opening a formal investigation into possible Section 337 violations, the ITC sets in motion a process that could lead to the indefinite suspension of a vast number of hard drives into this country, along with computers from Dell and HP that include them.

The patents in question are not held by a portfolio manager, as with so many disputes of late, but instead with Steven F. and Mary Reiber, who live in the suburbs of Sacramento. Mr. Reiber is the holder of five US patents pertaining to wire bonding tools. Specifically, he and Ms. Reiber created a tool that factories can use to join electrical wire to circuit boards without sending surges through the boards that short out the other installed parts.

The way it works, according to this World Intellectual Property Organization document, is not by suppressing the entire surge - which may be impossible - but instead equipping the bonding tip with dissipative ceramic.

This way, the tool does send a controlled charge of a moderate amount of electricity, though not enough to be considered a surge, and not enough to cause damage. The most recent US patent granted is dated August 30, 2005.

The ITC said the Reibers are seeking permanent cease-and-desist orders and permanent exclusion orders against the three hard drive manufacturers' products, as well as against HP and Dell PCs including those products. The Commission did not list the specific drives in question, though it's difficult to imagine a situation where one manufacturer makes some HDDs using a dissipative ceramic tip process, and some others without it.

"Section 337" refers to a portion of the Tariff Act of 1930, which declares unlawful "the importation into the United States, the sale for importation, or the sale within the United States after importation by the owner, importer, or consignee, of articles that (i) infringe a valid and enforceable United States patent or a valid and enforceable United States copyright registered under title 17; or (ii) are made, produced, processed, or mined under, or by means of, a process covered by the claims of a valid and enforceable United States patent."

Though the ITC would not go into detail concerning the specifics of the Reibers' claim, it appears as though manufacturers were unwilling to reach patent license arrangements with individuals, even though they're represented by prominent patent attorneys.

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