Jan. 18 (Bloomberg) -- Vitec Group Plc’s Litepanels unit won its U.S. trade case against competing manufacturers of production lighting for television and movie studios, and can block some of their products from the American market.
The competing lighting modules infringe two Litepanels patents and should be barred from entering the country, the U.S. International Trade Commission in Washington said in a notice yesterday on its website. The decision can be overturned by President Barack Obama on public-policy grounds.
Litepanels said it developed light-emitting-diode technology that helped revolutionize TV studio lighting, only to lose business to what it considers knockoffs. The case drew interest from the International Cinematographers Guild, which said Litepanels is trying to eliminate competition and would “damage our members’ creative choices,” a claim Vitec said was based on a misunderstanding of the case.
“We’ve tried to allay some of the fears that suddenly the only lights that are going to be available are Litepanels lights. That’s untrue,” Fred Fellmeth, general counsel of Vitec’s Videocom division, said in an interview. “We are happy to see competition. We are not happy to see outright copying, which is what we were seeing.”
The TV and film industries are investing in studio lighting with LED technology, which lasts longer, generates less heat and uses less electricity than older forms of illumination. The difficulty had been that LEDs often make skin tones look unnatural.
The Litepanels patents relate to ways to create a panel of specific types of LEDs so they can emulate sunlight and make people look normal in a film or video. The company, based in Van Nuys, California, won an Emmy for technology and equipment in 2009.
ITC Judge Theodore Essex, who found that three Litepanels patents were being infringed, in September recommended a general ban on imports, covering anyone who isn’t licensed by Surrey, U.K.-based Vitec, to stop “a widespread pattern of violation.”
“The concern was they could fairly easily and at low expense close down one factory and open another across the street making the same products,” said Bill Belanger of Pepper Hamilton LLP in Boston, who represented Litepanels.
The commission upheld the judge’s decision on two of the patents, while saying the third patent is invalid.
As part of its review, the commission said it was considering how long it would take existing manufacturers to modify their products so they don’t infringe the patents, and whether entertainment industries have any special requirements that can’t be met by products from Litepanels and companies that license its patents.
In yesterday’s notice, the commission rejected arguments that an import ban wouldn’t be in the public’s best interest. Instead, it said that to continue imports to the U.S. during the presidential review period, companies covered by the exclusion order must pay a bond equal to 43 percent of the products’ value.
Litepanels, which provided lighting for the press briefing rooms at the White House and Pentagon, said it or its licensees, including Sony Corp., could replace any excluded lighting systems. It reached agreements with many of the companies named in the original complaint, so they will be able to continue to bring their products into the U.S. as long as they pay royalties to Litepanels.
William Shaw, a patent lawyer in Arlington, Texas, who represented the four closely held companies that didn’t settle, said he hadn’t yet received the commission’s full decision and had no immediate comment.
Vitec makes imaging equipment including lighting systems, camera supports and robotic camera control systems for the broadcasting, defense and professional photography industries. The unit that includes Litepanels had a 12 percent increase in revenue, to 74 million pounds ($118 million), in the first half of 2012, Vitec said in August.
The case is In the Matter of LED Photographic Lighting Devices and Components thereof, 337-804, U.S. International Trade Commission (Washington).
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