A Talk with Ron Fierstein

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A Talk with Ron

By Kira A. Davis

      The Intellectual Property Committee of the Federal Bar Council recently hosted Ron Fierstein, the author of A Triumph of Genius: Edwin Land, Polaroid, and the Kodak Patent War, for a lively discussion about his book and the legendary patent litigation at the heart of the story.  We subsequently spoke with Mr. Fierstein about his work.

A Great Inventor

      While lawyers and non-lawyers alike can enjoy the tale of Edwin Land – the relatively unknown founder of Polaroid who was nevertheless one of the great American inventors – it is likely only the litigators who will be disappointed to learn that in the editing process, it was the discovery battles that were trimmed the most from the book. 

      As Fierstein recounted, Land’s original invention, which he created when he was age 19, was a plastic polarizer.  It was on this invention that Land built Polaroid, long before his invention of the one-step photography for which the company is famous.  It was instant photography that led to the war with Kodak, which had initially acted as a partner and mentor to the much-smaller Polaroid.  But as Polaroid grew, Kodak came to view instant photography as a threat to Kodak’s dominant consumer photography position, and so set out to develop its own instant photography program.

      Kodak, however, had not adequately accounted for one thing: Polaroid’s strong patent portfolio.  At the age of 19, and immediately following his breakthrough with the polarization process, Land began working with a patent attorney – a moment that Fierstein described as pivotal in Land’s career.  As a result of his early exposure to the patent system, Land became an ardent believer, even when the patent system was under criticism as monopolistic, and during a time when fewer patents were being issued and more were being invalidated in court.  Land’s investment in his patents paid off.  After nine years of litigation, Kodak was held to have infringed seven valid Polaroid patents, three of which were Land’s own inventions. 

      Fierstein explained that he was a young attorney at Fish & Neave during the trial, and an accidental patent attorney.  He said that he never intended to practice as a lawyer, but faced with the need to pay back his student loans, he decided to look for a job doing copyright and trademark litigation.  His search for an IP firm led him to Fish & Neave, where his biochemistry background got him assigned to patent work and, with it, the Polaroid case.

      Fierstein observed that success for Polaroid depended upon a determination that patents involving chemical imaging and particular dye molecules were valid and infringed. Polaroid’s plan, from the beginning, was to tell the Polaroid story, even if much of that story went to only secondary factors in the analysis.  Kodak, in contrast, focused on the technical.  That strategy backfired.  For example, while attempting convoluted, technical arguments at the end of a 10-day cross of Land, Kodak allowed Land an opportunity to succinctly and eloquently recount his “aha” moment of invention, made all the more believable for coming out on cross.  

      As Fierstein detailed it, the story certainly was “a triumph of genius.”

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