Here’s a Terrible Idea

JM Ashby
Written by JM Ashby

The University of California has filed lawsuits against the likes of Walmart and Amazon accusing them of not protecting the university's patents on filament LED light bulbs when they source them from foreign manufacturers.

I don't know enough about the case to say if the university's lawsuit has merit, but I do know something about this.

The university has also asked the U.S. Trade Commission to take a look at imports of the so-called Edison bulbs the university has a patent on.

The University of California Santa Barbara says the retailers should be paying it royalties from sales of the bulbs. Bed Bath & Beyond Inc. and Ikea of Sweden AB also were named in the complaint filed Tuesday with the U.S. International Trade Commission in Washington and in civil suits in federal court in Los Angeles. [...]

Complaints at the U.S. trade agency typically take 15-18 months once the commission agrees to investigate, far quicker than a district court. Patent owners often use the threat of an import ban to get the other side to the bargaining table.

The global LED Lighting market, including both residential, commercial and industrial uses, reached $45.57 billion last year and is expected to grow at an annual 11.8% rate through 2025, Grand View Research said in a June report. LED lighting is projected to dominate the American lighting market and reduce energy consumption by 40% by 2030, according to the U.S. Energy Department.

I understand the university's desire to protect their intellectual property, but once you start referring cases to trade officials under Trump, you enter the land of unintended consequences.

Complaints filed with the U.S. Trade Commission have led to tariffs on foreign metal which, as you know, have led to a much wider trade war that encompasses far more than metal. Trump is also expected to impose tariffs on European goods at almost any time in response to European subsidies for Airbus.

It's not necessarily the university's responsibility if Trump fires off a tweet or points his finger at this case as an example he can use in his trade war against China, but I hope they at least considered the possibility before asking the federal government to intervene.

With all of that said, I suppose it would be temporarily amusing if the university couldn't install the bulbs on their own campus following an import ban.

  • Just a pedantic note. The picture is the Federal Trade Commission. That’s a completely different entity than the U.S. International Trade Commission.

  • muselet

    This is a story which, in normal times, would be consigned to the page 3 of the Business section. UC Santa Barbara deserves royalties, isn’t getting them, files a complaint with the ITC, files lawsuits, follow-up when something happens. It’s important—UCSB has to protect its intellectual property rights or the university could effectively lose them—but it’s dull, a process story nobody except investors and lawyers cares about.

    In the Age of Trump, it becomes a bigger story because who the hell knows what the ITC will do. The (unlikely) best-case scenario is that Donald Trump’s distaste for China and California balance out, he stays out of it and the issue is resolved without a lot of fireworks. More likely, he will get angry with one party or the other (probably California rather than the retailers getting sued), send a flurry of ungrammatical tweets into the ether and make a mess of the process.

    We’ll have to wait and see what happens.

    (For the record, my father graduated from UC Berkeley and I graduated from UC Davis, so I’m not an entirely unbiased observer.)