Columbia University professor could trigger a Blu-ray injunction

With a few victories already under her belt, a celebrated physicist seeks to leverage those wins in a contest to reclaim her legacy. The other side of the story is that everything with a blue laser diode in it has just come under suspicion.

A fifty-six-year veteran physicist who is currently Columbia University's Howe Professor Emerita of Materials Science and Engineering, will have her patent infringement case heard by the US International Trade Commission. If Judge Paul J. Luckern concurs, an injunction could be placed on the import of all electronics containing blue-laser diodes manufactured using a certain patented process.

Prof. Gertrude F. Neumark Rothschild filed suit in February against some 30 of the world's principal consumer electronics manufacturers, including Sony, Toshiba, LG, Lite-On, Matsushita, Hitachi, Motorola, Nokia, Pioneer, Samsung, Sanyo, Sony Ericsson, and Sharp. Her claim is that all these companies produce blue-laser diodes using a particular semiconductor manufacturing process, whose patent she applied for in 1988 and received in 1993.

That particular process, she claims, is actually the only one there is for making reliable blue-laser diodes; and the implication of her suit is that corporations simply adopted that process as though it were in the public domain, perhaps because they thought its discovery in a university made it public -- a common misconception.

Contrary to reports, the professor is no "little old lady," nor is she some patent troll acting on behalf of long-forgotten interests. In fact, Prof. Rothschild (nee Prof. Neumark) is a formidable adversary who already won several battles in an effort to reclaim what she sees as her long-overdue royalties. Her previous volley of infringement suits was launched in 2002 against semiconductor producers Philips Lumileds, Cree, and Toyoda Gosei, for infringing against this same battery of patents. Toyoda Gosei settled out of court in August 2006 for an unspecified amount; Philips Lumileds settled with her just two weeks ago.

The professor's attorneys describe her as no less than the inventor of the blue-laser diode, and her patent makes a convincing case that the moniker may be deserved. A blue-laser diode is a type of semiconductor which produces light at given frequencies. It does this by exciting electrons in the stream so much that they lose energy as they leap over what's literally called a "wide gap." The distance of that gap helps determine the frequency of the emitted light, though to get those electrons excited just right, the semiconductor has to be doped with just the right impurities.

In patent number 5,252,499, "Wide band-gap semiconductors having low bipolar resistivity and method of formation," which credits Prof. Rothschild as the sole inventor on behalf of herself, a set of those impurities is listed. Among them is gallium nitride (GaN), and her patent describes how this and a few other candidates can be introduced into the n-type side of the semiconductor. That alone would create undesirable results, so her process goes on further to explain how the introduction of atomic hydrogen on the p-type side would neutralize the undesired effects, enabling the desired state of low bipolar resistivity.

Evidently, hers could be the process by which low resistivity is typically attained.

It could be a very long battle, but the professor appears experienced in such matters. A multitude of Japanese and German patents on gallium nitride-based semiconductors to which Prof. Rothschild did not contribute, may get called into question under new federal law regarding the novelty of inventions that appear to be upgrades to existing, older patents. Those patents have been the basis of Rothschild's previous defendants' defense...but those defendants settled.

If the investigation launched by USITC Judge Luckern finds that any or all 30 companies used Prof. Rothschild's methods without proper attribution or royalty, and that they're in violation of the dreaded Section 337 of the Tariff Act, the victors in the last format war may find themselves answering to a very distraught customer base.

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