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Eye-Fi calls shenanigans on the SD Association

The company claims that the version of the specification it has reviewed will infringe on some of its patents.

SD cards now have a patent spat of their own.

During CES, Toshiba and the SD Association made a couple of announcements that flew under my radar: a new specification dubbed Wireless LAN SD, aka iSDIO, (PDF) and a formal announcement by Toshiba about its FlashAir card, the first to support iSDIO.

Friday morning, Eye-Fi issued a statement on its blog expressing its displeasure over the SDA's announcement. In its statement, Yuval Koren, CEO of Eye-Fi, claims the announcement was premature, issued before the draft consideration process was complete, and that it runs the risk of violating some of Eye-Fi's patents. "The intellectual property at the core of this digital imaging revolution is our business. It's what Eye-Fi is. And as currently written, essential Eye-Fi patented technology would be violated by anyone implementing this draft specification." (I reached out to SanDisk, an executive member of the SDA for comment; it declined to opine.)

And it has no plans to license its technology. In a call with Koren, he told me that he wants the SDA to reconsider the standard to work around its IP. He also sounded quite piqued. "We were intentionally excluded. We are just getting familiar with the standard. We think it leaves some amount to be desired. In principle we are open to looking at what's the right way in which to create a broader standard around this technology." As a general, and not executive member of the association, Eye-Fi doesn't get to vote on the standards.

But the situation seems a bit more complicated. In 2010, Toshiba, one of the founding members of the SDA, partnered (PDF) with a Singaporean company, Trek 2000, which had created a lesser-known but competing wireless SD card dubbed "Flucard." The FlashAir, most likely based on the Flucard, while not the first wireless card to transfer video and images, does seem the first to additionally support transfer of other data types. And it seems like the product on which the iSDIO specification is based. One would like to assume that Toshiba and FlashAir have all the patents necessary for the standard.

But if not, it wouldn't be the first time a standards body has issued a standard and run afoul of someone's IP. Even the venerable Wi-Fi standard that all of these products incorporate had that problem.

I say "seems," because though the specification has been announced, it's not yet publicly available. Though it frequently alludes to them, I can't find any pointers to relevant patent listings for Trek 2000. But the art of patent searching can be quite opaque for a layperson; I'm waiting to hear from the company for specific references.

Understandably, Eye-Fi is worried. It's built an ecosystem of products that's gained quite a bit of traction, and the marketing power of the SDA could completely undermine that. But even if Eye-Fi turns out to be legally in the right--after all, the whole point of a patent is to grant a temporary monopoly--as a consumer it's hard to feel sympathy. It seems to want to maintain its proprietary ecosystem and wants to force the standard to route around it instead of of working out some sort of licensing arrangement. Consumers lose.

On the other hand, if Toshiba is using its power as an executive member of the SDA to drive the standard through or steamroll over the less powerful Eye-Fi just to get its icons ( one for Web connectivity and one for home networking) out there by the CP+ trade show in Japan in early February, that ultimately may not be great for consumers either.

On the upside, none of the parties involved is a patent troll. That's refreshing.