Patent issues a barrier to print on demand?

Here’s a fascinating story from Publisher’s Weekly that I hadn’t heard about until this morning, but it can definitely have significant ramifications on self-publishing for many, many people:

“Ingram said Thursday it will appeal a ruling this week that
essentially made much of POD subservient to an obscure Missouri
technology company…”

There’s more to this story, obviously…

The article continues with more details:

Keel Hunt, a spokesperson for Ingram, used the word disappointing to
describe a ruling which, if upheld, could award $15 million to the
patent-holder out of the coffers of Ingram, Ingram’s Lightning and
Amazon and necessitate a small royalty for every book produced using
POD. “We disagree. We will appeal and we expect to prevail,” Hunt

The patent, held by the late engineer Harvey Ross for the On Demand
Machine Corp, comes for a device that can digitally store a copy of
the text and print one copy or more when the books were purchased.
Despite some experts’ belief–including former B&N POD guru Ken
Brooks–that the patent applied to a type of in-store machine, the
jury interpreted it broadly to include a storage system, including
those used by Lightning and, by extension, clients like Amazon.
(Brooks was an Ingram witness and described himself as “very
surprised” by the ruling. Many in publishing, including this magazine,
were surprised too; details of the long-running suit were scarce.)

Despite the shock, the underdog victor was low-key today; even with
the jury’s verdict, a judge must find the ruling willful before any
damages are required. “There is much more to come before there is a
final verdict,” said Bruce Baebler, president of On Demand, but said
the ruling was vindication nonetheless. “We’ve had many disagreements
with Lightning Source since they started operations.”

The upshot? If it stands, POD’s relative efficiency could be
undermined, because a lot of small fees could add up to substantial
costs for Ingram, which could in turn be passed on to publisher
clients and jack up prices for the tool small presses count on. Then
again, experts say, CD’s and much of modern media actually require
such payments and do not get in the way of business. Says Brooks: “It
will take a while to sort out all the ramifications.”–Calvin Reid and
Steven Zeitchik

This has some significant ramifications for publishing and if print-on-demand vendors are put in a position of having to pay a license fee for what seems like a remarkably easy idea now, traditional publishers might find the equation turning back to their favor a bit more.

What do you think? Is this an example of an inventor creating something before it’s time, or an example of the Patent and Trademark Office creating a barrier to growth and progress through an overly-narrow interpretation of a patent?

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