Ronald K. Fierstein. A Triumph of Genius: Edwin Land, Polaroid, and the Kodak Patent War. Chicago: Ankerwycke, 2015. 644 pp. $35.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-62722-769-8.
Reviewed by Anna Johns (Duke University)
Published on H-Sci-Med-Tech (April, 2016)
Commissioned by Sean Seyer
A patent is a powerful--yet fragile--thing. A patent-holder has a legal monopoly to use the product or process covered by the patent, as well as the right to deploy the coercive machinery of the state to enforce this monopoly. But patents are also extremely vulnerable to attack; a patent holder, intending to use a patent as a sword against another, risks invalidation with every instance of judicial scrutiny. As recounted in intricate detail in Ronald Fierstein’s A Triumph of Genius, patent infringement suits often become long, grueling, and astronomically expensive ordeals, with high stakes for inventors, businesses, and the public at large. Narratives of these contests can do more than just chronicle the strategic choices of the lawyers on each side; rather, they can offer revealing snapshots of the constantly negotiated tension between the facilitation of invention and the value of competition in American intellectual property law.
Fierstein positions his work as a biography of Edwin H. Land, the imminently talented scientist and founder of the Polaroid Corporation. Land’s life was consumed by his obsession with vision and light, measured out in patents. His first patent application, filed a few weeks before his twentieth birthday, described a plastic “sheet polarizer” to eliminate glare. By the time of his death in 1991, he claimed a total of 535 patents, making him “third on the list of America’s most prolific inventors” as defined by number of patents, behind only Thomas Edison and Elihu Thompson (pp. 244, 523). The first chapters of Fierstein’s book describe Land’s relentless pursuit of a commercially viable sheet polarizer, a quest that led him to quit his PhD program at Harvard University and open a business with a fellow graduate student. Once settled in his own laboratory, Land developed an efficient technique to produce polarized sheet plastic. Land hoped that his sheet polarizer would be adopted by automobile companies and used to prevent the blinding glare of oncoming headlights at night, which at that time was a significant cause of traffic fatalities. When automobile companies proved slow to adopt his product, Land developed a variety of other uses for polarized plastics, including the now familiar use of polarized lens for sunglasses and in “3D glasses” for comics and films. World War II generated a steady stream of government orders for polarized instruments and tools, which bolstered the company financially through its early years. In fact, the crew of the Enola Gay wore “special Polaroid adjustable glasses” when they dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima (p. 36).
In 1943, Land turned his attention to a new challenge: producing instant photography. Fierstein presents Polaroid’s development of this new technology in microscopic detail over the course of seven chapters. Scholars of the history of science and technology might find these chapters particular interesting because they detail the trial-and-error process of invention from the ground level, with an emphasis not only on successful lines of inquiry, but also on roads not taken. A Triumph of Genius presents each bump in the inventive road and its concomitant resolution in turn--from differences in permeability of supporting materials that caused photographs to curl, to image stabilization problems, the decision to use positive dye developers instead of negative dye developers, experimentation with light-proof flaps on the camera body to prevent overexposure, and so on.
If A Triumph of Genius were, in fact, a biography of Edwin Land, the level of detail devoted to the technological hurdles to creating an instant photography system would begin to antagonize readers who lack a fascination with the travails of cutting-edge scientific research and development. As the author begins to delve ever more deeply into the technical constraints of instant photography, Land slowly ceases to be the protagonist of the work. A series of increasingly sophisticated instant cameras starts to drive the narrative, and at points Fierstein seems just about to pivot into a business history that traces Polaroid’s strategy as a market maker in the instant photography field. But then, about halfway through the book, the storyline shifts again. The plot builds to the moment that Polaroid sues the Eastman Kodak Company for patent infringement. As the Polaroid-Kodak lawsuit begins to take shape, it becomes clear that both Land’s biography and the tale of the invention of instant photography actually serve as a lengthy prologue to the lawsuit, the substantive heart of Fierstein’s work. Fierstein dubs this epic lawsuit for patent infringement against the Kodak, “one of the most important battles over intellectual property of all time” (p. 202).
The Polaroid-Kodak lawsuit began with Kodak’s ill-fated entry into the instant photography marketplace in 1976. For decades Kodak had been the unquestioned leader in the field of print photography, with significant market dominance that dwarfed its competitors and attracted periodic scrutiny from antitrust regulators. However, within the narrower field of instant photography, Polaroid was king. From the beginning, Polaroid exhibited an aggressive patent strategy, meticulously recording and filing patent applications for each incremental discovery on the road to a commercial product. By the early 1970s, Polaroid’s patent-based dominance within the field of instant photography was so complete that Kodak’s announcement of a directly competing product spurred Polaroid’s legal department to begin drafting its patent-infringement claim even before examining Kodak’s product. In April 1976, less than a week after first obtaining and inspecting the allegedly infringing Kodak camera, Polaroid sued Kodak for infringement of ten key patents from Polaroid’s patent portfolio, including several patents held by Land himself. In response, Kodak pursued a twofold response. First, the photographic giant claimed that Polaroid’s patents were merely “nominal advances that did not rise to the level of patentable inventions” (p. 251). Second, the company argued more broadly that Polaroid had sought to create and protect a “monopoly by abusing the patent system to create a wall of patents impenetrable to anyone interested in entering the instant photography field” (p. 225). On this second claim for misuse of the patent system, Kodak asked the court to invalidate Polaroid’s entire portfolio of patents.
The stakes associated with this case were high. First, conditions of global stagflation, combined with slowing sales in consumer markets saturated with photographic equipment and the rise of European and Japanese competitors, threatened the financial viability of both Kodak and Polaroid. A long and costly lawsuit only exacerbated these existing financial pressures. Perhaps even more significantly, contested patents had a “survivability rate” of only about 35 percent in the 1970s--that is, patent suits more often than not resulted in the invalidation of a patent rather than a finding of infringement (p. 313). (This validity rate was actually an improvement over a validity rate of around 10 percent in the 1930s, but it was still low compared to a more pro-patent moment coming just on the horizon. In the 1980s and 1990s, studies estimated that between 55 and 73 percent of patents would be found valid (pp. 313, 504-505).) By claiming infringement, Polaroid put its patents in the line of fire. Over the course of the lawsuit, Kodak set a strategic course predicated on the assumption that the courts would not uphold Polaroid’s patents. By the end of the lawsuit, Kodak had “more than $200 million worth of plant and equipment” and eight hundred workers engaged in making the allegedly infringing film (p. 477). In addition, sixteen million allegedly infringing cameras had been sold to consumers, which could be loaded and used exclusively with compatible, allegedly infringing Kodak film. Both Polaroid and Kodak had a lot to lose.
Fierstein’s interest in the lawsuit emerged out his own experience with the case. As a young attorney Fierstein worked at Fish and Neaves, a boutique law firm with a specialty in intellectual property law that represented Polaroid, with Fierstein serving on its Polaroid team. The author’s background proves to be both a weakness and a strength of the book. Fierstein’s role as an advocate in the litigation compromises his credibility as a neutral storyteller. Yet his access to the firm’s litigation file allows the story of the case to be told in full color and high resolution. Fierstein weaves together information gained through internal law firm memoranda, interviews with key staff and attorneys, and source material such as transcripts of trial testimony or newspaper reports of the trial available in the public domain. By doing so, Fierstein allows his reader a rare glimpse into the firm’s litigation strategy at each stage of the lawsuit, including the delicate balance of power between law firm and client. For example, after waiting almost two years for a decision from the judge after the close of trial, Polaroid pressured the lead attorney in the case “to do something” (p. 460). Fierstein uses internal documents to show the scramble to draft a letter to the judge to communicate the “substantial importance” of the case, though the effort was finally abandoned as a “stupid thing to do” (p. 460). The letter was never sent, but the firm did send a young attorney to the courthouse to listen for “scuttlebutt” and to see if anything could be learned from the judge’s “apparently tight-lipped” clerk (p. 460). (In fact, one wonders if Fierstein himself might have been the unnamed young attorney.) These details come through only because of Fierstein’s uncommon insider access to materials and knowledge about the suit.
In the most literal sense, Land plays the heroic role of “genius” within A Triumph of Genius, and the legal vindication of his patent rights represents his final “triumph.” But less directly, the genius motif signals Fierstein’s personal preference for a robust system of patent protection instead of a system that constrains patent monopolies and exhibits a preference for a robust public domain of knowledge. Attitudes towards the appropriate level of patent protection have varied wildly throughout modern history, shifting between eras in which strong patent protections have elicited widespread suspicion as tools for creating industrial monopolies to the detriment of the public at large, to those in which legal and policy elites have viewed durable patent rights as essential incentives for entrepreneurship and invention. More in-depth analysis of such evolving approaches to intellectual property rights can be found in recent works such as Adrian Johns’s Piracy: The Intellectual Property Wars from Gutenberg to Gates (2009) and Peter Baldwin’s The Copyright Wars: Three Centuries of Trans-Atlantic Battle (2014). In contrast, Fierstein traces only a single arc in this long-term swing in public sentiment regarding patent protections, pinning 1938 as a particularly “anti-patent” moment in US history and noting the rise of pro-patent protection attitudes in the second half of the twentieth century, with something of a “peak” in the 1990s and 2000s (pp. 313, 506). Fierstein lauds Land as an indefatigable “Champion of Patents” (p. 76), so his victory is also a symbolic victory for pro-patent advocates broadly.
In the end, Polaroid won seven of its ten claims for patent infringement and settled with Kodak (in lieu of appealing the case) for close to a billion dollars. The district court case ultimately passed through the dockets of four federal judges and took fifteen years to resolve. At times the case turned into a “class in organic chemistry,” with witnesses explaining Polaroid chemical processes in all their minutiae (p. 413). A theme of the work is the importance of translation and communication between specialists and generalists, one that might find resonance with scholars of the history of science, medicine, and technology. One of Land’s greatest strengths was his ability as a scientist to communicate his ideas and his innovations to a lay audience, particularly to the federal judge overseeing the case. At least for the purpose of achieving a successful outcome in the lawsuit, Land’s ability to serve as both obstinate inventor and patient teacher proved essential. Land passed away shortly after the case’s conclusion, in 1991, having since retired from Polaroid.
The Polaroid-Kodak lawsuit lasted for such a long time that even a gradual erosion in anti-patent attitudes meant that the landscape had shifted significantly from the time Polaroid filed its complaint in federal court to the time the federal court issued its final judicial opinion. Fierstein acknowledges the view of some commentators (including Kodak representatives) that Polaroid’s patents “might not have been upheld as worthy of patent protection under the former, tougher standards” that Kodak’s legal advisors applied in pre-controversy 1970s opinion letters on whether Kodak’s actions would be found infringing (p. 506). He also cites a New York Times article that called the Polaroid-Kodak suit “the most prominent example of an increasingly pro-patent sentiment in American Courts” (pp. 504-505). But Fierstein generally dismisses Kodak’s position that Polaroid’s “wall of patents” essentially excluded any competitor from entering the field of instant photography and that this constituted an abuse of the patent system (p. 225). Rather, he insists that shifts in patent law were not responsible for the case’s outcome. Fierstein’s conviction in the righteousness of Polaroid’s position with respect to its patents remains unyielding, irrespective of tectonic shifts occurring in the patent law arena.
Instead, Fierstein frames Kodak’s loss as the natural culmination of its hubris: “Kodak must have or, at least, should have realized that total victory in a trial was going to be a long shot” (p. 507). Fierstein sees Polaroid’s victory as a David-and-Goliath tale. Kodak was bigger, stronger, and had comparably vast resources--yet Kodak ultimately proved to be a lazy, lumbering giant. In contrast, Polaroid, with Land at its helm, was the underdog whose inventions had been rudely appropriated by Kodak’s “isolated and arrogant” senior managers (p. 508). Polaroid’s plucky lawyers assured that Kodak got its just desserts in what was essentially a “grudge match” (p. 508). Fierstein glorifies Land the inventor and denounces Kodak as the pirate riding Land’s coattails.
Fierstein’s retelling puts the reader squarely in the shoes of a Polaroid insider, so an outcome in Polaroid’s favor really does feel like a triumph. Yet when Polaroid achieved its legal vindication, Kodak lost its two-hundred-million-dollar investment in the production of instant film and cameras, eight hundred workers lost their jobs, and sixteen million consumers’ cameras became junk overnight when Kodak was forced to halt production of the corresponding instant film. These losses may be viewed from Fierstein’s inventors’ rights perspective as merely collateral damage, or perhaps a harsh but necessary deterrent to future would-be patent infringers. But the absolute protection of Polaroid’s patent rights in this case arguably was not in the public interest, even if it was undoubtedly in Polaroid’s interest. The tragic reality is that Kodak’s employees and customers stand out as the real losers in the Polaroid-Kodak suit, not the Kodak management executives who in 1976 were foolish or brazen enough to enter the instant photography field despite Polaroid’s painstakingly developed patent portfolio. Though these executives’ calculations of risk and reward drew Kodak into the line of fire, the consequences passed to the next generation. The key decision makers who spurred Kodak’s entry into instant photography (and thus into an embarrassing and costly lawsuit) were likely long retired by the time the case ended in 1990.
A Triumph of Genius, then, does not quite fit into the frame of a biography, a business history, a history of technology, or a legal history--though it combines some features of all of these. At its core, Fierstein’s work is an anatomical dissection of a tremendously complex patent suit, yoked to a morality tale of ironclad intellectual property rights as an engine of technological improvement. Fierstein takes a firm position on the importance of a strong patent system and declares victory to the side of “genius,” but by doing so misses an opportunity to analyze his carefully reconstructed narrative in light of the longstanding debate over the optimal level of patent protection--the degree of protection that adjusts the claims of entrepreneurs and inventors in light of broader societal concerns. Fierstein’s A Triumph of Genius offers not only an insider’s view into a contentious patent infringement lawsuit, but also an extensive articulation of the inventor-centric approach to intellectual property rights that gained legal traction amid an era of reduced concern about the concentration of economic power.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-sci-med-tech.
Anna Johns. Review of Fierstein, Ronald K., A Triumph of Genius: Edwin Land, Polaroid, and the Kodak Patent War.
H-Sci-Med-Tech, H-Net Reviews.
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