Memjet and Canon have signed a long-term, global agreement to cross-license their patents in some areas, though the two companies have chosen not to share any other details.
Or to be more accurate, Memjet announced this last week while Canon has kept quiet and ignored my requests for more information. This in itself is quite unusual as companies generally coordinate a joint statement but it feels to me that Canon has been caught on the hop by the Memjet press release. So although Len Lauer, CEO of Memjet, stated that “We are excited and pleased with our agreement with Canon, which validates the value of our technology,” it’s not entirely clear that Canon sees it that way.
Nonetheless, this agreement is not a complete surprise given that Memjet also announced a similar cross-licensing deal with HP back in the summer of 2016. This followed Memjet suing HP over patent infringement, and HP countersuing, and avoided a protracted court battle. But Mike Willis, managing director of inkjet consultancy and patent tracking company Pivotal Resources, points out that HP and Canon may also have cross-licensing agreements that date back to the 80s when both companies independently developed their own thermal inkjet technologies. So it was only a matter of time before Canon and Memjet would also need a licensing arrangement to square the circle.
But what might the two companies have actually licensed? Well, in the best journalistic tradition, there’s no need to allow Memjet and Canon’s tight-lipped refusal to comment to stop us from speculating wildly. So, last year Memjet announced a new Duralink printhead that overcomes one of Memjet’s major limitations by adding the ability to jet pigment inks. All thermal printheads require a heater but whereas Memjet had previously suspended its heater in the ink, the Duralink head uses the more common approach of bonding the heater to the base material. Willis points out that Memjet does not have many patents surrounding bonded heaters compared to the large number filed by Canon and HP so it’s possible that Memjet may have used the deal to gain rights to intellectual property in this area.
The patent dispute between HP and Memjet related to HP’s development of its PageWide Web presses. But Canon also is working on high speed single pass inkjet printers using thermal printheads. The company launched the Dream Labo 5000 a couple of years ago, which is a seven-colour photo printer that’s primarily aimed at photographic labs and dedicated photo printing applications.
At the last Drupa show, Canon also showed a sneak preview of a sheetfed press, Voyager, that builds on this but with a much more productive printer. Thus Voyager is a B2 sheetfed duplex press with a seven colour inkset using aqueous pigment ink. It’s aimed at the photo merchandise and commercial print market. Willis says that Memjet has a large patent portfolio covering silicon MEMS printheads and dealing with the problems of single pass printing.
It’s unlikely that this is the full story but at least it gives us some insight into the type of intellectual property that the two companies might have exchanged. It also highlights the degree of cooperation between vendors and the importance of maintaining control over the patents that underpin print technology.