A Japanese engineer out to gain more respect--and cash--for Japanese inventors suffered a setback 19 September when the Tokyo District Court issued a preliminary ruling against his attempt to reclaim patent rights to a groundbreaking discovery from a former employer.
Shuji Nakamura, who then worked for Nichia Corp. in Anan, Tokushima Prefecture, trumped materials science researchers around the world by developing a blue light-emitting diode (LED), in 1993, and later a blue semiconductor laser (Science, 21 March 1997, p. 1734). Thanks to the short wavelength of blue light, blue semiconductor lasers will allow quadrupling 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.
Nakamura, who left Nichia to become a professor of materials science at the University of California, Santa Barbara, claimed in his suit that the rights to a chemical vapor deposition process that is key to the manufacture of the devices should be restored to him because he had conducted the research on his own after Nichia had told him to drop it. He also asked for $16 million in compensation. Japanese patents are awarded to the individuals making the discovery, but the patent law allows corporate researchers to transfer rights to their employer for "fair compensation." Nichia paid Nakamura just $170 for the rights to the manufacturing process. The suit estimates that Nichia's sales of blue LEDs in 2000 topped $400 million.
In a preliminary ruling, the court sided with Nichia regarding patent ownership, noting that Nakamura used the company's facilities and staff for the research. The court delayed a decision on the compensation issue.
"I am not satisfied with the ruling at all," says Nakamura, who has repeatedly claimed that his suit was intended to draw attention to the lack of recognition and poor salaries of Japan's corporate researchers. The corporate view of the case was reflected in an editorial in the Nihon Keizai Shimbun, Japan's leading business daily, which praised the ruling as "following the rules of the patent law."
Nakamura says he will appeal once the final ruling is issued. The court has not yet set a date for a final decision.