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A Triumph of Genius

Edwin Land, Polaroid, and the Kodak Patent War

The RainyDayMagazine folks attended an excellent talk/book reading given by the Ronald Fierstein at the New England Mobile Book Fair. Mr. Fierstein was one of the lawyers who worked on the Polaroid vs Kodak patent infringement suit which resulted in the largest ($950M) award in patent litigation history, and the talk was an insider’s take during this epic confrontation.


Having read Peter Wensberg’s book (Land’s Polaroid) back in the 80’s, we knew the genesis story of Polaroid. However, even though a couple of us worked at Kodak’s software arm in Massachusetts back in the day, we knew little of the details of the lawsuit with Polaroid. Mr. Fierstein’s telling of the events was riveting because he was “the guy” assigned to work directly with Dr. Land during the decade-long battle with Kodak (and he said this in such a way that you could tell he still can’t believe got the gig). Along with the sharing stories of interesting interactions with Dr. Land, Mr. Fierstein also recounted some great personal stories about Dr. Land and Apple’s Steve Jobs, one of which was that Steve Jobs was a great admirer of Dr. Land and had modeled himself and Apple after Land and Polaroid.


What was also cool was Mr. Fierstein had some of vintage Polaroid cameras (and one Kodak) at the talk! While we were very familiar with both the SX-70 Land camera and the Kodak EK6 Instant camera (referred to as “the parking meter” inside Polaroid), we had never seen the Model 95 (the first Polaroid, introduced in 1947.) The unit at the talk was one of those in the first series because it had the spring sight at the front of the camera. The spring was replaced with a rod in the Model 95B shortly after introduction for usability reasons. The first model weigh over four pounds, not because it had to, but so that it could be classed as a professional camera and thus avoid the consumer camera tax!


The Polaroid SX-70 and One-Step Color Film combo put Kodak into “panic-mode” when Dr. Land unveiled it in 1972. Until then Kodak, even though profited greatly from Polaroid as a customer, was fairly dismissive of Polaroid as a competitor. By Kodak’s internal estimate, the SX-70/color film combo would take a huge (huge) chunk of business from Kodak and that they HAD to (had to) respond with a competing product. Unfortunately for Kodak, they could not do so without infringing on patents owned by Polaroid. Kodak eventually not only paid a landmark settlement, but was forced to withdraw its camera and instant film from the market. Of course, neither company was able to withstand the onslaught from digital photography, and both are shells of their former selves today.



We count ourselves fortunate to have had this opportunity to meet Ronald Fierstein and to hear from him some of his first hand accounts of this important chapter in photography history. We are eagerly looking forward to reading and learning more about what exactly transpired during that time between the two giants of photography. A Triumph of Genius by Ronald Fierstein, put it on your Summer reading list!!!

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