BY THE TIME INVENTOR JEROME H. LEMELSON DIED in 1997, he and his foundation had collected more than half a billion dollars in license fees for a bundle of patents covering bar-code readers and other inspection gear used on automated production lines. Today, the Lemelson patents continue to raise cash--and hackles (BW--July 20). On Oct. 14, a company with its own vision technology filed suit to have Lemelson's patents declared invalid.

The lawsuit, by Cognex Corp. of Natick, Mass., seems odd at first blush. The Lemelson Foundation has never sought royalties from Cognex, which makes sophisticated factory-inspection systems. But the foundation has fought pitched court battles to collect fees from some of Cognex' premier users, which include Ford Motor, Procter & Gamble, Kimberly-Clark, and Intel. "Since Lemelson died, we've been getting more and more complaints from our customers," growls Robert J. Shillman, president and founder of Cognex.

Shillman says his company's 150 engineers have put in more than 1,000 cumulative years perfecting their own vision technology--earning 30 patents of their own along the way. He wants his customers to be able to buy his products without having to fight Lemelson's foundation over the right to use them.

Lemelson Foundation lawyer Louis J. Hoffman says Cognex' customers are infringing on its patents "by practicing the patented methods to manufacture products." The Massachusetts courts will have to make the call.

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