Note: The author has contacted Eye-Fi CEO Yuval Koren and the SD Association to comment on this story and will update the post as soon as there is a response.
The current mobile-technology landscape is partially defined by large companies suing and countersuing one another over patents. By and large, many of those legal battles revolve around acquired patent portfolios and vaguely defined processes--and the underlying goals seem to be delaying and crippling competing products, cashing in on lucrative licensing deals, and jockeying for a more-desirable position in the mobile marketplace.
In the world of cameras, another patent battle is taking shape--and this one may serve as a better reminder as to why patent laws exist in the first place--depending on some crucial information that has yet to come to light.
Eye-Fi, a company that has been making Wi-Fi-enabled SD cards almost exclusively for seven years, claims that the Secure Digital Association (SDA) has announced a similar wireless-card standard that may infringe upon Eye-Fi's related patents.
The iSDIO (Intelligent SD Input-Output) is a wireless-card specification that essentially replicates the sharing-over-Wi-Fi functionality found in Eye-Fi's range of SD cards. The specification would allow any SD-card maker to allow in-camera uploads, peer-to-peer sharing between devices, and home-network backup via Wi-Fi, all without paying any licensing fees to Eye-Fi.
Eye-Fi's chief complaint is that the SDA didn't follow its own guidelines for announcing the new iSDIO specification, especially in light of how similar the new specification is to Eye-Fi's own patented, wireless in-card technologies.
On the company's blog, Eye-Fi CEO Yuval Koren stated that his company was denied due process as defined by the SDA before the association announced iSDIO as a new specification. The full post on the Eye-Fi site can be found here.
"Last week, the SD Association (SDA) announced that a draft Wireless LAN specification had been adopted as a new standard," Koren writes in the post. "This was a flat out misrepresentation."
Koren also claims that the SDA didn't adhere to its own rules of reviewing intellectual-property claims and revising specification details accordingly before announcing the new iSDIO standard.
"Under the SDA's own rules, this was not possible," Koren wrote. "SDA members -- and we are one -- are allowed 60 days in which to respond with claims to patented intellectual property and plans around licensing that IP to the SDA."
"This week, still in advance of the SDA-provided deadline, we disclosed our patented intellectual property to the SDA, detailing multiple Eye-Fi patents essential to the current SDA draft specification," Koren writes. "There is a process for the establishment of this kind of specification, and that process wasn't respected."
Keep in mind that this is still in the "he-said, they-said" stages of the game, and there are many details essential to the story and the potential legal battle that have yet to surface: whether or not the iSDIO spec completely replicates Eye-Fi's in-card technologies, whether or not Eye-Fi will be willing to license their patented technology to reap potentially major benefits, and whether or not the SDA erroneously jumped the gun in announcing the new spec before the body's Executive Members voted on whether or not to accept it.
In the worst-case scenario, this looks like a case of "big, powerful standardization body bullies the little guy," a potential abuse of power driven by other members of the SDA that want in on the wireless SD-card market that Eye-Fi currently dominates.
And in the best-case scenario, it could end up being quite lucrative to Eye-Fi via a licensing deal, as a successful patent claim on the wireless technology embedded in iSDIO cards would translate to a chunk of money going to Eye-Fi with every iSDIO card sold. There's no doubt that standards, especially those that involve platform- and company-independent sharing of content, are good for the industry overall, but only if the innovators behind the technology are rewarded appropriately; if not, there's absolutely no incentive to innovate and drive new ideas in the marketplace.
In any case, it looks like some important steps in the specification process were skipped--perhaps intentionally ignored--by the SDA, and the resulting anger and frustration on Mr. Koren's is both palpable and understandable.
"The intellectual property at the core of this digital imaging revolution is our business," writes Koren on the blog. "It's what Eye-Fi is. And as currently written, essential Eye-Fi patented technology would be violated by anyone implementing this draft specification."