Patent Case Has Heads Swiveling

PVA’s shot across the bow of the conformal coating industry is sure to raise the hackles of some of the equipment manufacturers, but it’s hard to see that they have much choice but to go along.

To recap: In October 2000 and September 2002, respectively, the US PTO issued PVA a pair of patents 6,132,809 (the ā€˜809 patent) and 6,447,847 (the ‘847 patent). The ā€™809 patent covers the utilization of multiple nozzles on a conformal coating applicator. In short, this would cover any robotic conformal coater with more than one application head. The ‘847 patent covers the rotation around at least a single axis. In other words, if the head rotates, it is covered by the ‘847 patent.

I’m no patent attorney, but those patents appear very broad to my untrained eye. But I do know that an issued patent is a valid patent. PVA is in a strong position here.

This week, PVA issued a cease-and-desist letter to Specialty Coating Systems , citing 33 potential infractions of the two patents. Other than a press release informing the same, the two sides are, as far as I can tell, now letting their lawyers to the talking.

But for those who follow the conformal coating industry, allegations of infringement shouldn’t stop with SCS. The use of a rotating application head is hardly unique among conformal coating equipment. PVA’s complaint may start with SCS, but I would almost guarantee it won’t end there. Readers should talk to their conformal coating equipment suppliers about what this might mean for them.

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About Mike

Mike Buetow is president of the Printed Circuit Engineering Association ( He previously was editor-in-chief of Circuits Assembly magazine, the leading publication for electronics manufacturing, and PCD&F, the leading publication for printed circuit design and fabrication. He spent 21 years as vice president and editorial director of UP Media Group, for which he oversaw all editorial and production aspects. He has more than 30 years' experience in the electronics industry, including six years at IPC, an electronics trade association, at which he was a technical projects manager and communications director. He has also held editorial positions at SMT Magazine, community newspapers and in book publishing. He is a graduate of the University of Illinois. Follow Mike on Twitter: @mikebuetow

9 thoughts on “Patent Case Has Heads Swiveling

  1. This sounds a lot like most of the IP lawsuits that float all over the technology industry (Apple v. HTC just to name one) that often end in one company rolling wheel barrows of cash from their bank to their suits bank. Who wins, lawyers. As usual.

    Patents support and at the same time infringe on the advancement of the industry in general. Don’t sue. That’s lazy. Innovate. That takes effort. Somebody “steal” your idea? Innovate again. You… Will… Win!

  2. Mike–

    The proper definition of a patent is “one which has prevailed in a court case.” The USPO issues patents which are invalid–for example, if the Examiner misses a published article which discloses the subject of the patent, or if there’s a very old, expired patent which already covered the subject. The USPO makes no guarantees and has little if any responsibility.

    Just like freshly minted regulations of any sort, a patent is a license to sue. And if you sue, you may lose everything because the patent may be held invalid.

  3. I believe Tomas is correct…
    At patent “issued” doesn’t equate to a “valid” patent (as “valid” is understood by general public)

    It give the patent holder a good start to defend their ownership in court…
    Like a hotly contested , newly created law… until it is tested in the courts, it isn’t very permanent.

    The Patent system in this country is broken.. many weak and readily discarded patents are issued daily.
    It is up to the courts to “sort” them out.

    bad way to go about business..

    Patent office is over run .. and Congress takes all the patent fees and puts them in the general fund..
    Basically, the patent office isn’t allowed to fund it’s self.
    It’s income far exceeded it’s expenses during the last 20 years..
    But Congress decided to use the excess for other things.. so the service suffers.
    and now the additional load falls on the overburdened court system.

  4. Thomas is 100% correct, a patent granted is more worthless than the paper it is printed upon, until it has been validated in a court of law.

    Even then, the next company that gets sued for infringing the patent may have better lawyers or they could know where to find prior art invalidating the patent. Prior art that the initial defendant didn’t know about.


  5. @Tom, et al:

    I certainly appreciate the feedback. Do examiners wrongly issue patents? Of course. But even with ample evidence of prior art, overturning a patent is a hugely expensive and time-consuming task — and the undertaking is unlikely to succeed.

    Case in point: Jim Howard’s embedded capacitance patent. Licensed and marketed as ZBC (Zycon Buried Capacitance), that particular work informed the ability to create capacitance by using thin materials. Years later, Howard, then working for Wus, delivered a very straightforward and stunning paper at an IPC conference whereby he acknowledged there was, indeed, prior art — loads of it, in fact. By that time, Sanmina-SCI owned the patent, having acquired it through its purchase of Zycon. And Sanmina was making a mint licensing the ZBC technology (and also generating a royalty off all materials used). Howard’s paper stirred up quite a bit of controversy, and riled up more than a few license holders. But in the end, it changed absolutely nothing.

  6. Mike,
    “in the end, it changed absolutely nothing”.
    Yea, percentage wise.. likely the more common outcome.

    It (and many similar stories) have changed at least one thing…

    The perception innovators have on the value of a getting something patented.

    As seen in the statements above ..
    – some will see the solution as “innovate, innovate” (run faster than the rest of the pack)
    – some will see the solution in getting more / better lawyers…

    a few more perspectives…
    – some will just give up… (the system is rigged for failure against those with less resources)
    – some will ignore the legal issues.. make money until caught – then split…

    and only a few will ask .. why don’t we fix the system?

    regardless, your last observation I have issue with (“Readers should talk to their conformal coating equipment suppliers about what this might mean for them).

    I can’t imagine what the equipment manufacturers are going to share with their customers on the subject..
    (their legal strategy? their next generation solutions?-killing sales of current products? or there plans of going out of business?, their licensing plan? )

    Even if the customers get a straight story from their current equip supplier.. will they believe the correctness of the response when the issue revolves around a screwed up patent system and an overburdened court system?

    I am feeling a bit negative at the moment….sorry.

  7. @John: No apologies necessary. Your comments, positive or negative, are always welcome here.

    Re the conversations between equipment OEMs and their customers, I imagine the latter should be asking what if would mean for them if PVA were to litigate and a court were to find in its favor. In short, if I’m using a competitor’s machine, and one that is potentially infringing, will I be able to continue to use said machine?

  8. Mike,
    I have rarely seen a patent contest result in the courts stating it was illegal for product already in the field to be disabled, removed or commanded to “cease the use of”.
    – nearly impossible to enforce
    – kills relationship between “winner” of patent dispute and customer base for new equipment.

    The worst that would likely happen .. they will not be able to re-sell the equipment (even that would be hard to enforce).

    COULD it happen? yea.. but the odds are even longer than someone fighting the original patent.

    Would be like the patents on Cell phones that have been recently been settled..
    Can no longer import certain ICs or Cellphones .. but no one has made it illegal for the consumers to use the (infringing) Cell phones that have already been sold.

    As you can probably tell, this subject (patents)…. pushes my “button”.

    I really enjoy reviewing your observations on the industry.. keep up the good work.

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