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Japanese Inventor Sues Company

28 August 2001 7:00 pm
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Fired up. Shuji Nakamura thinks researchers deserve more credit--and cash.

TOKYO--The Japanese engineer whose breakthrough research led to a blue light-emitting diode (LED) and a blue semiconductor laser has sued his former employer for a share of the profits from his invention. Shuji Nakamura, now a professor of materials science at the University of California, Santa Barbara, is seeking $16 million from Nichia Corp. of Anan, Tokushima. Observers here say it reflects a trend among scientists to gain greater recognition for their achievements.

Nakamura stunned the materials science community in 1993 with his blue LED. Building on that work, he then produced a blue semiconductor laser (Science, 21 March 1997, p. 1734), which could help quadruple the amount of data that can be stored on compact discs. Blue LEDs, when combined with red and green LEDs to produce white light, could eventually supplant conventional light bulbs.

Japanese patents are granted to the researchers who made the discovery. But a clause in the law allows individuals to transfer the rights to a corporation in exchange for undefined--and typically nominal--compensation. Nakamura's suit focuses on one patent covering a new method of chemical vapor deposition used in making the LEDs and lasers. Nakamura says he received $170 for this patent, the basis for the company's sales of gallium nitride-based LEDs, which he estimates at $400 million last year.

Since leaving Nichia for the U.S. in 1999, Nakamura has repeatedly criticized the low recognition and poor salaries of researchers in Japan. "What I want to say with this lawsuit is that Japanese researchers should get reasonable compensation," he says.

Nakamura's suit, filed 23 August in Tokyo District Court, is one of half a dozen or so filed in the last several years by researchers seeking greater compensation for their efforts. Katsuya Tamai, a professor of intellectual property law at the University of Tokyo, says that the suits reflect a gradual breakdown of Japan's traditional system of lifetime employment and a shift toward basing pay and promotions on performance rather than seniority. The legal battles have not gone unnoticed by leading companies, which have responded by creating incentive programs. "Companies will have to put such programs in place or see their best researchers leave for the competition," Tamai says.

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