RED Sues Nikon Over Z9 RAW Video Patent

Actually, RED—the video camera company started by Oakley Sunglasses founder Jim Jannard—appears to be suing Nikon not just for the Z9, but for any camera Nikon might be making that infringes the RED US-only patents, which seems a bit on the overly paranoid side of things. Maybe RED thinks Nikon will release more cameras soon with the same capability. The intoPIX engine that performs the video work is built into EXPEED7, which suggests that, but I think RED is clearly worried about Nikon as a competitor. Amazing (see last paragraph for reason why I say that).

But this suit is actually a longer and much bigger story than most of the photo sites are presenting. Many of us who've been involved with video technology for decades feel that the RED patents in the US should never have been granted in the first place due to previous work, vagueness, as well as obviousness. Apple felt that way and tried to get the patent thrown out, but the way the US courts work with patents is nebulous, as many judges simply don't understand tech and dependencies, particularly when you get down in the weeds and a patent (and lawyers) obfuscates what it actually is trying to protect. Apple didn't try very hard, and didn't win their case, but obviously found some way to settle with RED, otherwise we wouldn't have ProRes RAW (which is also supported in the Nikon Z9). Oh, and we have ProRes compression supported in the RED cameras themselves, so RED is obviously licensing Apple technology (probably through MPEG LA). 

REDs legal team has been very active trying to protect their vague US patents. They've sued DJI, Kinefinity, Sony, and others, though they've settled out of court in several cases. They might find Nikon a more formidable opponent, in that Nikon, like Sony, has a body of their own patents that predate RED's and probably has IP that RED uses without license. Nikon also has a formidable law firm here in the US that has taken on far bigger problems than the RED patent suit. I'd say the likelihood is that Nikon will countersue, and the case will eventually be settled out of court. Again. Just as it was with Sony.

However, a lot of folk are missing a key point here: RED's sue-happy trigger is a sign of weakness on RED's part. RED's big worry is that they can't keep the technology parade of the big Japanese companies from eventually rendering the RED products less competitive and appearing overpriced. Indeed, RED's bigger complaint is probably this: the Nikon Z9 at US$5500 produces 8K video—at least up to 60P (the current RED products go to 120P)—that is effectively as good as RED's US$24,000+ one (typically US$35,000 fully configured).  

Curiously, RED does not include intoPIX in their suit. I have no idea why they don't, as intoPIX has been marketing video raw capabilities for years (and remember, if you're going to defend intellectual property in court, you can't be found to playing "favorites" in who you go after). The intoPIX TicoRAW engine that is embedded in hardware that Nikon licensed is doing virtually all the work here. Nikon's contribution seems to be primarily the written file format itself, and file formats would pull up a whole host of other previous patent property.

Finally there's the issue of whether RED is still trying to defend the basket when the ball's already left the court. Although I can't say for certain, it seems clear that the reason why Canon has raw video recording capabilities and hasn't been sued by RED is that Canon and RED cross licensed intellectual property at some point (otherwise Canon would be suing RED). That appears to also be how Sony settled out of court with RED, as well. Meanwhile we have Blackmagic Design BRAW and Apple ProRes RAW video formats already establishing themselves in the market. If this is a royalty grab by RED, I'm not sure why that isn't simply an issue for MPEG LA to add to its pile of IP and address. If it's an attempt to stave off Nikon as an 8K competitor, I don't see how that works outside the US, and again, I perceive the suit as a sign of weakness on RED's part.

In the technology world, once companies get locked down in patent fights, that usually indicates that they're spending too much time on defending the past as opposed to inventing the future. There's a common misconception by many that we wouldn't have innovation without patents. That line of thinking goes like this: big companies would just steal any idea and put the innovator out of business. Well, I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but big, near-monopolistic companies often simply just ignore patents and let the courts later decide whether any compensation is due. And given that those big companies have more lawyers and more stamina than the innovator, they often win. In my career in Silicon Valley I rarely worried about taking the time to patent all the unique things we were inventing—and that list is a pretty substantial one, by the way—because it took our eyes off the ball, which we needed to keep moving forward to stay ahead of competitors. I actually take it as a point of personal pride that Apple has incorporated multiple patentable ideas that I was a part of helping invent. It took them years to do so ;~).

Personally, RED's real claim to fame is modularity and robustness, both things that are really needed in Hollywood-style productions. I really don't see a Z9 as likely to steal RED business at that level. Perhaps the one-man band videographers would opt for a mirrorless camera because of price and portability, but even there you quickly run up against barriers. Netflix's camera requirements list shows no Nikon-made cameras as approved, while virtually all of the RED lineup is. So what exactly is it that RED thinks they're protecting?

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