A Triumph of Genius details the epic patent battle between Polaroid and Kodak over the technology behind instant photography. This book is fascinating for two reasons. First, the legal battle is a classic example of corporate arrogance on Kodak’s part. Kodak recognized they might have difficulty with Polaroid’s patents but deluded themselves into believing that all of Polaroid’s patents were invalid. Simple statistics says this is unlikely. Even when Polaroid offered to settle with what appeared to be a reasonable offer, Kodak insisted on dragging the battle to the bitter end. And a bitter end it was. It cost Kodak more than $1 billion dollars (yes that is billion with a b). Even today, this payment remains the largest payment in a patent infringement case.
The second fascinating aspect to the legal case is its complete irrelevance. At the time of the trial, instant film was on its way out, soon to be replaced by a new era of digital photography. Not even a billion dollars could save Polaroid from the market forces of changing technologies. Today, Polaroid is a shell of its former self. It exists only to market products developed by other companies, and Kodak has not fared much better. After inventing the digital camera, Kodak took a backseat to others in the digital industry, convinced that it needed to protect the sales of conventional film.
Over the years I have heard bits and pieces from this trial at industry conferences, but until now I have never been able to put the events in perspective. Now, thanks to Ronald Fierstein I have a a good perspective on what happened to Kodak and Polaroid and why it happened.
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