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Judge Casts Doubt on Scientist's Account

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Science  05 Apr 2002:
Vol. 296, Issue 5565, pp. 31a
DOI: 10.1126/science.296.5565.31a

Materials scientist Shuji Nakamura is getting an unpleasant lesson in the take-no-prisoners style of the U.S. legal system. A federal judge last month accused the prominent University of California, Santa Barbara, researcher of lying in a high-stakes patent lawsuit and recommended that he be prosecuted for perjury, a charge that he and his lawyer strongly contest. The accusation comes just weeks before Nakamura is to receive one of his field's highest honors.

The Japanese-born Nakamura won acclaim in the 1990s as the inventor of a blue light-emitting diode (LED) that could lead to cheaper, more efficient lighting. But in 1999 he left Nichia Corp. and moved to the United States, saying that Japanese companies don't do enough to reward their inventors. Last year, Nakamura sued Nichia in a Japanese court, seeking a $16 million share of the firm's profits from his discoveries (Science, 31 August 2001, p. 1575). He now works as a consultant to a U.S.-based LED maker, Cree Inc. in Durham, North Carolina, which is embroiled in a patent fight with Nichia over the multibillion-dollar LED market.

As part of Cree's legal struggle, Nakamura last November answered questions from attorneys about the history of the firm's patents. At least one of his answers caught the attention of the judge hearing the case, James Fox of the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina. In a 15 March letter to federal prosecutors, Fox said that Nakamura admitted that he had “intentionally submitted false data in conjunction with the applications for [Nichia's U.S.] patents.”

Legal twist.

Shuji Nakamura is caught up in a patent fight over his profitable blue LED invention.

CREDIT: UC SANTA BARBARA

Nakamura's words are still sealed in court documents. But Fox said in his letter that Nakamura either broke laws against submitting false information to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office or lied about the accuracy of Nichia's patent filings as part of Cree's bid to invalidate them. Either way, Fox recommended that the government prosecute Nakamura for perjury—a crime that can be punished by a jail term. Prosecutors have several years to decide whether they will follow the judge's recommendation.

Nakamura was stunned by the letter, which was publicized last week by the electronic newsletter Internet Patent News Service. “Perjury? I don't understand,” he told Science after being informed of the judge's complaint. Nakamura's attorney, William McLean of Thoits, Love, Hershberger, and McLean in Palo Alto, California, says Nakamura is not responsible for any allegedly false statements in Nichia's patent applications. “The judge has just a glimmer of all the pertinent information,” McLean says.

Attorneys for Nichia and Cree declined to comment on the letter, and prosecutors and the judge did not return calls. But lawyers familiar with the case say the letter may reflect the judge's unhappiness about courtroom behavior by both sides. “The judge is signaling that he'll be tough on anyone who misbehaves,” says one, who asked to remain anonymous.

In the meantime, Nakamura expects to be in Philadelphia on 25 April to receive the Benjamin Franklin Medal in Engineering. Some winners have gone on to receive a Nobel Prize.

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