US ITC – Don't Turn Out the Lights [Opinion]

Light Emitting Diodes (LEDs) have been a 50 year overnight success. One supplier now threatens that progress, at least in the niche of videography and perhaps beyond, given the broad nature of its patents. Anyone involved in local content should take a minute to read this, as the number of choices of LED lights for videography could be greatly diminished and the prices will most likely increase, depending upon the final ruling of the United States International Trade Commission in mid-October.

The opportunity to sway the US ITC is between now and October 17th and information on how to submit comments can be found here. In a nutshell, Litepanels, owned by U.K. company Vitec, is using its patents to exclude importation of competitive products from China into the United States. Viodi, LLC plans on submitting this article to Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) as part of the comment process.

Innovation or Improvement?

For those of us old enough to see the arc, the evolution from the red lights of a calculator to the white street light replacements of today has played out pretty much like the experts said it would. Each step got us closer to the lighting revolution we are seeing today. It really has been an evolution, as first there were red LEDs, then green LEDs and, then, in the early 1990s, along came the blue LED. All the while, the power and the manufacturing process continued to improve. With red, green and blue colors available, the promise of a lifetime, the white LED, was possible.

The point of telling this brief history is that the idea of using LEDs to illuminate things has been known for decades. The challenge was that the LEDs themselves were not available for the applications that were obvious to even the marginally educated observer, such as this author. Decreased energy consumption with longer lifetime has proven to be a winning combination for multiple applications as LEDs have bloomed.

In the past couple of years, white LEDs have proven to be of great benefit  to those involved in videography. The low power consumption of LEDs allows for battery power and their efficiency means much less energy wasted away as heat; no more sweaty talent. Like all applications for LED  lighting, cost has decreased, while performance has increased.

From what I glean from looking at a cursory view of the submitted documentation, Litepanels did not participate in the development of LEDs; where the true innovation has occurred. Litepanels’ focus was on the application of LEDs, particularly in the niche of illuminating objects for the purposes of recording them. There is some evidence (see comments) that others had sold LEDs for video lighting before Litepanels’ patent applications, and this archived page from 2000 that suggests the model RLL-24 from The LED could be used as an, “Onboard light for video cameras”.

The first units from Litepanel, introduced in 2003, were appealing, but expensive and only useful for niche lighting applications; they were complements to an existing light kit, but not a replacement. As the cost/performance of LEDs improved, costs came down, more competitors got into the market, prices fell and the use of LEDs in videography increased. Litepanel definitely improved lighting alternatives, but the real innovation was the white LED, which was not invented by Litepanel.

The Impact of the US ITC Ruling As It Stands

The United States International Trade Commission, “is soliciting comments on public interest issues raised by the recommended relief, specifically a general exclusion order against certain LED photographic lighting devices and components thereof.” As a video producer and observer of the space, here are some of the impacts we see because of the referenced exclusion order:

  • As background, ViodiTV is on track to produce over 200 videos in 2012, which include interviews and mini-documentaries. ViodiTV videos have improved thanks to the use of LED lights. Prior to that, our lighting options were limited, since we travel to most of our video shoots. The logistics and expense of bringing traditional lights to remote, particularly rural, locations makes the use of traditional lights impossible in most cases. The portability, small size, battery and low power consumption of LEDs enable us to produce higher quality videos.
  • For ViodiTV, as well as other documentary producers and citizen journalists, the videos are often produced with a tight time schedule. There is minimal time for setting up lights. Battery power, enabled by the lower power consumption of LEDs, is ideal, as it saves time that would be necessary to connect to an AC outlet. LED lights are lightweight and mount on the camera, eliminating the need for heavy light stands.
  • For years, we looked at the Litepanel’s lights and, although we coveted them, particularly when they were introduced and were the only choice, they were too expensive. Soon, competitors appeared, but the cost/performance was never enough for us to justify the purchase. Then, in 2011, we purchased a Cowboy Studio Led CN-126 Ultra High Power 126 LED unit. It was helpful, but the quality of the materials was somewhat shoddy.
  • Then, we found the ikan stackable iLED120s that feature great performance, high quality construction and a clever design at a great price. What we particularly liked about this unit is that multiple units could be assembled together to create a larger light.

    Two stacked ikan-120s at a remote shoot
  • The MicroPro, the Litepanel alternative to the ikan iLED120,really wasn’t an alternative for the following reasons:
    • It doesn’t appear to be stackable (e.g. dimmer control protrudes on the top of the MicroPro) , like the iLED120. Being able to add lights is important to meet the lighting needs of a particular shoot.
    • At $315, the cost of the Litepanel is almost three times as expensive as the iLED120 at $117.
  • If LED lights from ikan and other suppliers are removed from the market, not only will prices increase due to decreased competition, but innovations, like those referenced above from ikan, will not be available.
  • The higher prices will hurt independent producers, such as ViodiTV, but also potentially organizations that are increasingly using video and need quality lighting provided by LEDs, such as
    • Police who are recording more and more of their activites
    • Tele-psychiatry applications where the doctor needs good lighting to see the patient via video
    • Education applications, where the teacher is filmed for blended learning applications

In summary, the ALJ (administrative law judge) should consider the above factors when making a final determination. Restriction of competition, as currently considered, would be a hidden tax that would have ripple effect of increasing the cost of video production, while impacting the ability for budget-constrained producers to create quality content.

0 thoughts on “US ITC – Don't Turn Out the Lights [Opinion]

  1. I can’t believe the copies need to be submitted via paper. Talk about discouraging 3rd parties from commenting on a matter that, taken by itself, may seem trivial, but combined with other similar cases have the potential to restrict free trade and stifle innovation.

    “Persons filing written submissions must file the original document electronically on or before the deadlines stated above and submit 8 true paper copies to the Office of the Secretary by noon the next day pursuant to section 210.4(f) of the Commission’s Rules of Practice and Procedure (19 C.F.R. 210.4(f)).”

  2. Litepanels made a statement in response. It seems that the defendants were not able to prove that anyone had the idea before they patented it. Regardless, I think we should stop China from dumping cheap copies on the US market.

  3. Thanks Steve for adding the link and adding to the discussion. I agree that IP needs to be protected and that there is the opportunity for interested 3rd parties to comment as part of the patent process.

    Still, the overhead for a small company to stay current with all the patents being submitted and then comment, makes it virtually impossible for anyone but the biggest companies to file comments. The overhead of trying to keep up with patent submissions that would affect the small company would also kill it.

    What we have seen is that patents and patent libraries are about defensive positioning (e.g., Google’s purchase of Motorola to give it patents to protect its products) compared to being about innovation. With the number of patent examiners overwhelmed, there are too many obvious things that are being patented.

    Back to the patent at hand,Litepanels states, “In fact, our patents specifically refer to the application of full spectrum, white LEDs for image capture in those mediums [media/creative arts of film, television and photography].”

    That is a pretty obvious application and pretty broad. What would prevent Litepanels from trying to prevent someone from using LED flashlights for media/creative lighting applications? This link makes it pretty clear that the application of white LEDs to videography, etc. had been commercially available since 2000; 3 years prior to Litepanels.

    For larger companies, it is often easier to pay licensing fees or cross-license (back to the defensive use of a patent) and I suspect that is what the larger companies did.

    Regarding the dumping of cheap copies from China and employment in Los Angeles, What about the hidden tax of a tariff on the consumers of these LED lights and their customers and the money it takes from their pockets? One thing that economists agree on is that more competition is of greater benefit than a tax or tariff than benefits a few.

  4. Note, the web site seems to have been closed (presumably, because the comments were closed). It wasn’t clear who all the players were, but FloLight (a competitor to Litepanels) was one of the backers of the site. In this interview on Digital Production Buzz, FloLight’s CEO Mark Ditmanson, discusses the case before the ITC.

  5. In their email newsletter published today, ikan reports that they have settled with Litepanels:

    “ikan Reaches Settlement with Litepanels

    ikan has reached a settlement with Litepanels, laying to rest the lawsuit and 527 action between the two companies.

    After a long year-and-a-half of litigation and attorney meetings, Litepanels continues to own the intellectual property assigned to it regarding the importation and manufacturing of LED panels within the United States.

    This agreement permits ikan to manufacture and distribute our great LED lighting solutions — so rest-assured, our LEDs aren’t going away.”

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