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Saturday, June 26, 2010

Kodak Sees Fewer Patent Fights Ahead

The Wall Street Journal
Kodak Chief Perez Plans to Curtail Patent Lawsuits

Eastman Kodak Co. Chief Executive Antonio Perez said he plans to curtail the aggressive patent lawsuits that have generated cash for Kodak as it struggles to reinvent itself with a focus on making printers.

Since becoming CEO in 2005, Mr. Perez, a former Hewlett-Packard Co. printer executive, has successfully turned Kodak's patents into a lucrative sideline and key source of funding to finance its push into digital printing.

But those printing efforts haven't yet paid off and the slow pace of the company's turnaround has frustrated analysts. Meanwhile, Kodak's once-lucrative film business continues to shrink and its need to invest in printers continues.

"We need [cash flow from patents] right now because we're investing too much for the size of the company in these new businesses," he said in an interview at the company's Rochester, N.Y., headquarters.

"Film will never come back," Mr. Perez said. "Those very, very, very high gross margins that film had will never come back. I don't know of any digital businesses that will even have half of the margin that film had."

Kodak has reported only one full-year profit—in 2007—since 2004. Last year, its loss narrowed to $210 million from a loss of $442 million the prior year. But sales have continued to tumble, falling 19% last year to $7.61 billion from $9.42 billion in 2008.

Mr. Perez says his efforts to transform the 130-year-old company are making a noticeable difference. "When I came into the company [it] had a revenue profile that was 85% based on film and a profit profile that was 130% based on film," he says. Today, the company gets 70% of its sales from digital products.

In March, Kodak's movie-film business, which had remained relatively steady even as camera film sales plunged, suffered a new blow when three big movie theater chains secured financing to convert 14,000 movie screens to digital projection by 2013. The funding is expected to accelerate the digital distribution of movies, giving Kodak less time to adapt to the long-anticipated decline in its film cash cow.

Earlier in his tenure, Mr. Perez pushed aggressively to get Kodak into digital cameras, and now he is making a big bet on consumer and commercial inkjet printers. But he doesn't expect the printer businesses to be profitable until 2012.

Kodak's consumer printer business has gained some traction, with the number of households with Kodak printers doubling last year to about two million. Its printers are priced higher than rivals such as Hewlett-Packard and Seiko Epson Corp., but its ink cartridges, at $10 to $15, cost about half as much. Mr. Perez believes Kodak will finish the year with more than 5% of the consumer printer market in the U.S.

Chris Whitmore, an analyst with Deutsche Bank, says it will be difficult for Kodak to gain significant market share in consumer printers because the market is so competitive and profits come from ink, which requires lots of printer sales.

"We are somewhat skeptical they can actually get to that level [of market share] in that timeframe," Mr. Whitmore says.

In commercial printing, Mr. Perez has high hopes for a fast digital printer introduced in the first quarter called Prosper Press, aimed at publishers and catalog makers. Mr. Perez says more than 100 companies have requested the Prosper Press but so far Kodak's only shipped four of them because of manufacturing complexities. The commercial printers cost $1.4 million to $4 million each.

He says Kodak so far is incapable of making more than "a few dozen" this year. "We're desperately trying to get the technology under control so we can expand," he says.

While he has worked to build these new businesses, patent payments have provided a cash cushion for the company. In 2008, he set a goal to generate between $250 million and $350 million on average each year in intellectual property licensing—mainly its digital imaging patents—through 2011. He later extended the target for that goal to 2012 but had disclosed little on his plans afterward.

In the past year, Kodak's patent attorneys settled lawsuits with Samsung Electronics Co. and LG Electronics Inc. receiving lump sums of $550 million and $400 million respectively. In January, it filed lawsuits against Apple Inc. and Research in Motion Ltd. alleging their smart phones infringe Kodak's digital-imaging patents. Analysts say it may be difficult for Kodak to match its earlier success in the latest patent fights.

But Mr. Perez says he'll wean Kodak off the patent lawsuits once the commercial and consumer printer businesses are profitable. "We'll find more value getting into business relationships that generate revenue working with some other partner rather than asking for cash," he says.

He says he didn't want to litigate so much, but felt he had to during the downturn when he says companies using Kodak technology ignored his requests to strike licensing deals. "Going to court is expensive, it creates a lot of publicity, nobody benefits from it except law firms," he says.

Mr. Perez expects intellectual property income to continue generating revenue for Kodak even as the number of new patent-suit filings slow. "It will be very valuable," he says.