Eastman Kodak’s bankruptcy filing early this morning was not a Kodachrome moment. However, the death of the film pioneer means its rebirth as a digital brand, complete with threats of patent lawsuits against Apple and others.
Saddled with nearly $4 billion in debt, the company told a New York federal bankruptcy court that the move will help “complete its transformation” to an all-digital enterprise. Indeed, in 2011, Kodak made 75 percent of its money from digital products. However, another valuable product is the company’s patent portfolio, described as a “critical part” to Kodak’s future.
CEO Antonio Perez told the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of New York, the imaging company will “maximize the value of two critical parts of our technology portfolio.” Those patents have garnered more than $3 billion in licensing fees since 2003. Ironically, the technology Perez describes as “essential for a wide range of mobile and consumer electronic devices,” also sped the replacement of film photography with digital photos from cameras and smartphones such as the iPhone.
The prominence Kodak gives to patents for its future success is not by accident. Although the company’s stock lost 90 percent of its value over the past year, the price of shares rose five percent Tuesday on word Kodak was suing Samsung for allegedly infringing the very patents Perez mentioned.
Along with Samsung, Kodak has charged Apple and BlackBerry-maker Research in Motion. The company’s courtroom fight with Apple extends back to 2010 and has even reached the Washington, DC-based International Trade Commission.
Of course, Kodak is not the first company to view patents as a profit machine. Technology firms now see the collecting and enforcing of intellectual property as products just as important as a new phone or their latest gadget. The risk for Kodak is to not become simply a patent mill whose only purpose is lawsuits against high-profile companies. That would be a comedown from its place in history and unworthy of even the cheapest Instamatic.