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Blue LED Inventor Sues Former Company

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Science  31 Aug 2001:
Vol. 293, Issue 5535, pp. 1575
DOI: 10.1126/science.293.5535.1575a

TOKYO—The Japanese engineer whose breakthrough research led to a blue light-emitting diode (LED) and a blue semiconductor laser has sued his former employer for a share of the profits from his invention. Shuji Nakamura, now a professor of materials science at the University of California, Santa Barbara, is seeking $16 million from Nichia Corp. of Anan, Tokushima. Observers here say it reflects a trend among scientists to gain greater recognition for their achievements.

Nakamura stunned the materials science community in 1993 with his blue LED and built on that work to produce a blue semiconductor laser (Science, 21 March 1997, p. 1734). Because of its short wavelength, a blue laser promises to quadruple the amount of data that can be stored on compact discs. Blue LEDs, when combined with red and green LEDs to produce white light, could eventually supplant conventional light bulbs. Nakamura worked at Nichia for 20 years before leaving for the United States in 1999.

Fired up.

Shuji Nakamura thinks researchers deserve more credit —and cash.

CREDIT: D. NORMILE

Japanese patents are granted to the researchers who made the discovery. But a clause in the law allows individuals to transfer their patent rights to a corporation in exchange for undefined—and typically nominal—compensation. Although Nakamura was awarded more than 80 patents related to blue LEDs and lasers, his suit focuses on one patent covering a new method of chemical vapor deposition used in making the LEDs and lasers. Nakamura says he received $170 for transferring the rights to this patent, the basis for the company's sales of gallium nitride-based LEDs, which he estimates at $400 million last year. Privately held Nichia does not release financial details.

Since leaving Nichia, Nakamura has repeatedly criticized the low level of recognition and poor salaries of researchers in Japan. “What I want to say with this lawsuit is that Japanese researchers should get reasonable compensation,” he says. Last December, Nichia sued Nakamura, North Carolina State University, and Cree Inc., a rival maker of blue LEDs for whom Nakamura was consulting, in U.S. court, claiming patent infringement and trade secret theft.

Nakamura's suit, filed 23 August in Tokyo District Court, is one of half a dozen or so filed in the last several years by researchers seeking greater compensation for their efforts. Katsuya Tamai, a professor of intellectual property law at the University of Tokyo, says that the suits reflect a gradual breakdown of Japan's traditional lifetime employment system and a shift toward basing pay and promotions on performance rather than seniority. In turn, employees are increasingly going to court if they feel they've been treated unfairly. Although researchers have won all of the suits, the awards have been small.

Still, the legal battles have not gone unnoticed by leading companies, which have responded by creating incentive programs. Sony Corp. researchers, for example, can earn up to $16,000 in bonus payments for key patents. Eisai Co., a pharmaceutical firm, pays researchers 0.05% of sales for the first 5 years a drug is on the market. “Companies will have to put such programs in place or see their best researchers leave for the competition,” Tamai says.

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