Patent Fight Pits Former Wireless, RFID Partners

While they worked closely together in the past to provide cutting-edge wireless, bar code and radio frequency identification (RFID) technology, U.S. companies Symbol and Intermec are now locked in a widening patent battle that some fear could hamper the progress of RFID.

Holtsville, New York-based Symbol and Everett, Washington-based Intermec have filed patent infringement lawsuits against one another in U.S. District Court in Delaware after their supplier relationship soured earlier this year.

Better Days

Symbol this month terminated its relationship with Intermec for laser scan engines used in bar code scanning, claiming that extensive efforts to cross-license Intermec’s RFID technology were unsuccessful. For its part, Intermec is claiming that Symbol is infringing on six Intermec patents that relate to wireless access, terminal and software technologies.

The fight adds another thorn in the development of the RFID market, which is also struggling against security and cost issues. The technology is nonetheless being implemented and required by some large retailers, particularly Wal-Mart.

Industry analysts told CRM Buyer the suits are unlikely to affect RFID’s development long-term. “Both companies want to see it resolved, whether it’s in court or out of court,” said DataComm president Ira Brodsky. “It’s not going to do any of them any good if the market doesn’t develop. Then those patents are worthless.”

Free To Defend

In a statement Intermec made this week regarding its intellectual property (IP) suit against Symbol, the company said its patents cover an integrated wireless data capture system capable of distributing data over a network, portable battery-powered data processing devices that run multi-tasking operating systems, handheld portable data capture devices with graphical user interfaces (GUIs), handwriting recognition and processing, and other technology.

Intermec is seeking unspecified damages and an injunction barring Symbol’s further use of the technology.

Intermec, which also touted its forthcoming EXCELerate laser scan engine set for later this year, said Symbol’s decision to break off its contract with Intermec “frees us to defend ourselves against Symbol’s claims and to prosecute our own patent infringement claims against Symbol,” according to a statement from Intermec president Tom Miller.

Miller added that Symbol’s decision to halt the supply contract “will have no effect on Intermec business operations.”

Industry Imposition

Symbol — which claims it terminated its relationship with Intermec because of broken-down negotiations on Intermec’s RFID technology — is seeking an injunction preventing Intermec’s use of 802.11 WiFi technology in its bar code scanning terminals.

Symbol won a jury award from Proxim for US$23 million in 2003 based on infringement claims involving two of the four patents Symbol is asserting against Intermec. Symbol is seeking an injunction preventing Intermec’s use of its patented technology and damages for the former partner’s prior use.

“Symbol believes that Intermec’s imposition of its RFID IP on the industry is potentially harmful to the industry and customers,” Symbol senior vice president and general counsel Peter Lieb said in a statement.

DataComm’s Brodsky said despite the alleged patent infringement going both ways, neither company would benefit from a wireless and RFID market bogged down by the patent fight.

“It’s probably fair to say neither company wants this to interfere with the market,” he said.

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