UC Board of Regents sues 5 retailers over alleged patent infringement

Maya Valluru/Staff

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The UC Board of Regents filed a complaint July 30 with the U.S. International Trade Commission as well as five individual lawsuits in federal district courts in Los Angeles against five major retailers — Walmart, Amazon, Target, Ikea and Bed Bath & Beyond — for the alleged unlicensed sale of patented filament LED lightbulbs.

These lightbulbs were developed at UC Santa Barbara by professors and researchers in the Solid State Lighting & Energy Electronics Center. Patent rights cover the filament LED lightbulbs, which allow light to shine in multiple directions, according to Seth Levy, a partner at Nixon Peabody LLP, the firm representing UC Santa Barbara.

Additionally, the use of LED lightbulbs has many environmental benefits. According to Levy, much of the world’s energy usage can be attributed to lighting, and LED lighting uses only about 10 percent of the energy that incandescent bulbs use. LED lightbulbs also last longer than others, Levy said, which reduces the amount of waste they create.

“(The UC system) does not want to stop the sales of these lightbulbs,” Levy said. “It’s important that the university receives royalties for the sale of these products.”

According to Levy, retailers have been selling these lightbulbs without authorization or licenses from the university. He said the regents are using the “strategic approach” of filing against the retailers rather than trying to track down manufacturers, which he said is much more difficult, as many are overseas. According to a UC Santa Barbara website on the patent, reasonable royalties for the sale of these lightbulbs will be determined on a case-by-case basis.

While the regents board only filed lawsuits against five retailers, they are not the only ones that sell filament LED lightbulbs. Levy said he expects the university will have to have conversations with many other retailers beyond these lawsuits and that further litigation may be necessary.

“We chose these five particular (companies) because they represent a large cross section of the types of retailers who sell these products,” Levy said.

According to Levy, this lawsuit marks a “groundbreaking” step toward protecting UC research, and he said he hopes these strategies can be used in the future to protect universities’ patent rights on a broader scale.

Levy said he feels that this lawsuit demonstrates good leadership from the Board of Regents in setting a standard for the future.

“Our hope is that these lawsuits demonstrate the importance of respecting the rights of university patent owners,” the UC Santa Barbara website reads.

Of the five retailers mentioned in the lawsuit, Target, Ikea and Amazon declined to comment, while Walmart and Bed Bath & Beyond did not respond as of press time.

Contact Ella Langenthal at [email protected].