‘Edison’ Bulb Battle Heats Up With University Targeting GE, Ikea

The University of California is ramping up efforts to obtain patent royalties on popular vintage-style LED light bulbs from companies including General Electric Co. and Home Depot Inc., threatening them with a product import ban if they don’t pay up.

The dispute is over bulbs designed to imitate the iconic look of ones developed by GE founder Thomas A. Edison, inventor of the first mass-marketed incandescent bulb.

The University of California Santa Barbara filed a patent-infringement complaint at the U.S. International Trade Commission in Washington, naming GE and the new owner of its lighting business, Savant Systems Inc.; Feit Electric Co.; Home Depot; Ikea AB, and Satco Products Inc. It’s the second round at the trade agency for the university, which seeks to collect royalties on a fast-growing style of lighting popular at American restaurants and with modern home designers.

Researchers at UC Santa Barbara’s Solid State Lighting and Energy Electronics Center, including Nobel Prize-winner Shuji Nakamura, said they developed technology for an exposed filament that disperses light in all directions.

The university already sued some of the companies, and is counting on the possibility of an import ban to increase pressure. GE, Savant and Satco aren’t budging, and lodged their own challenges to the validity of university patents both in court and with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s review board.

The new complaint is similar to one the school filed last year at the trade agency targeting retailers. That case was dropped after the school opted to pursue damages in district court. It’s also signed licenses with some retailers and manufacturers, though none as large as Feit or General Electric, said the school’s lawyer, Seth Levy of Nixon Peabody LLP. Retailers Ikea and Home Depot have private-label bulbs.

“We’re trying to be practical by going after the largest parties in the space,” Levy said.

UC Santa Barbara has almost 500 patents in various areas and collected $4.3 million in royalties in fiscal 2018, according to information on the university system’s website. Overall, the university system brought in more than $271 million in royalties and fees from almost 5,000 active patents.

While Levy wouldn’t say how much UC Santa Barbara has collected in patent royalties on the LED bulbs, he said “we’re seeing a growth in royalties that’s consistent with growth in the market.”

The case is in the Matter of Certain Filament Light-Emitting Diodes, 337-3486, U.S. International Trade Commission (Washington)

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