By Jonathan Stempel
(Reuters) – Five major retailers, including Amazon.com Inc <AMZN.O> and Walmart Inc <WMT.N>, were sued on Tuesday by the University of California over what it called the “existential threat” when foreign manufacturers infringe schools’ patents.
Amazon, Walmart, Target Corp <TGT.N>, Ikea AB and Bed Bath & Beyond Inc <BBBY.O> were accused of infringing four patents related to “filament” LED light bulbs, which use 90% less energy and last many years longer than traditional light bulbs.
These patents relate to what the university called the “reinvention of the light bulb” by researchers at the University of California, Santa Barbara led by professor Shuji Nakamura, who won the 2014 Nobel prize for physics.
The university is seeking unspecified damages, including royalties, in lawsuits filed with the U.S. District Court in Los Angeles, and wants the retailers to enter license agreements.
It has also asked the U.S. International Trade Commission to open a probe into the retailers’ conduct, saying the retailers have failed to require their suppliers to honour the university’s patents.
None of the retailers immediately responded to requests for comment.
Filament LED light bulbs are sometimes called “Edison” or “vintage” bulbs because they resemble light bulbs created by Thomas Edison that have glowing filaments visible inside.
They became widely available only in the last five years in the United States, where sales in 2019 are expected to top $1 billion, according to court papers.
According to the university’s lawyers at Nixon Peabody, the litigation is the first-of-its-kind “direct patent enforcement” campaign against an entire industry.
The university said it was intended “to spearhead a broader, national response to the existential threat” posed by the “widespread disregard” for the patent rights of universities, including when schools encourage the private sector to develop commercial products containing their research.
The lawsuits in the U.S. District Court, Central District of California, include Regents of the University of California v. Walmart Inc, No. 19-06570; Regents of the University of California v. Amazon.com Inc et al, No. 19-06571; Regents of the University of California v. Target Corp, 19-06572; Regents of the University of California v. Ikea of Sweden AB et al, No. 19-06573; and Regents of the University of California v. Bed Bath & Beyond Inc, 19-06574.
(Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)