If you’ve ever seen an old color movie like The Wizard of Oz you’ve probably seen the “Filmed In Glorious Technicolor” crawl. In fact, for years, Technicolor was synonymous with seeing color on film and on your screens, and for good reasons: Technicolor was ingenious.
Despite the fact that no one had invented film stock that could actually capture color, the French company had figured out a way to make color movies by splitting the light being recorded with a prism into red, green and blue light, then recording those individual color spectrums onto separate strips of black-and-white film. Once these strips of film were colored and combined, the result was life-like color recorded on black-and-white film.
Pretty cool, huh? In the days of digital cinema, though, Technicolor has fallen on hard times. In fact, their entire company is unprofitable, with the exception of one department that keeps 220 staff on hand. It’s the patent licensing department, and their only job is to rip open new iPhones, iPads and Macs the second they come out and start looking for infringements.
Bloomberg has a fascinating report on Technicolor’s patent licensing division, and while no one could call Technicolor trolls — they are only looking for patents they actually invented, favor fair and equitable licensing agreements and refuse to sell their patents to other companies — it’s a little bit sad to see such incredible technological pioneers making all of their revenue from suing other companies.
Here’s what happens when a new Apple device comes out… say, an iPhone. Technicolor’s armada of patent specialists rip open the device and tear it down, iFixIt style. They then look for any features or hardware that could possibly infringe upon the company’s library of 40,000 video, audio and optical patents.
“We usually send manufacturers a big file, with photos of the guts of their products, pointing to where they’ve been using our technology without paying for it,” said Beatrix de Russe, a lawyer and executive vice president of intellectual property at Technicolor. “Once those images have sunk in, we can start negotiating.”
And it works. Patent licensing is Technicolor’s most profitable business, and the licensing division had a 76 percent operating profit margin last year.
It’s kind of weird to think that Technicolor ekes out an existence in the 21st Century not by innovating, as they once did, but as essentially a patent licensing business. Even weirder? That if you asked Technicolor, they’d point to the iPhone in your hand as being made in glorious Technicolor, just like the movies of old, and if Apple disagrees, they’ll be happy to see Cupertino in court.