Cree is sued, accused of patent infringement

A 2013 file photo shows a scene from a commercial for a Cree LED light bulb.
A 2013 file photo shows a scene from a commercial for a Cree LED light bulb. Baldwin&

A company that is both a customer and competitor of Cree has sued it for patent infringement, contending the Durham LED lighting company copied the technology that went into its groundbreaking LED light bulb that was launched in 2013.

OptoLum, a small LED lighting systems company based in Arizona, also has accused Cree of wrongfully touting that it invented the innovative technology that enabled it to create its own brand of LED bulbs that are sold exclusively at Home Depot.

OptoLum, which buys Cree-made LED chips that it uses in its own lighting products, filed its lawsuit seeking unspecified actual damages as well as punitive damages in federal district court in Arizona last week.

A Cree spokeswoman said the company doesn’t comment on pending litigation. Cree, which employs more than 2,000 workers in Durham, sells LED light bulbs and indoor and outdoor LED lighting fixtures, as well as components other companies use in LED lights.

The lawsuit points out that a Cree commercial for its LED light bulbds currently airing on ESPN labels its competitors as “copycats” and crows that “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.” But in reality, the lawsuit contends, Cree is the copycat.

OptoLum’s founder and CEO Joel Dry, according to the lawsuit, invented and patented the technology that enabled Cree’s LED bulbs to produce energy-efficient light whose quality was similar to that of incandescent bulbs.

OptoLum produced a prototype LED bulb in 20003 and demonstrated it at LED lighting conferences over the next few years, including at a conference in Dallas in which Dry met with Cree co-founder John Edmond “and explained the design of his bulb in detail,” the lawsuit contends. Dry also met Cree CEO Chuck Swoboda at a subsequent conference where he exhibited OptoLum’s bulb.

OptoLum never produced an LED bulb, deciding instead to focus on LED lighting fixtures used in commercial lighting.

Cree too concluded that commercial lighting was the most lucrative market for LED lights, but decided that creating its own LED bulbs for consumers “would position Cree as a leading innovator,” the lawsuit contends. That led it to conceive of “a long-term and covert strategy” that called for it to end up competing with its own customers.

“In the execution of this strategy, Cree copied the design of Mr. Dry’s LED bulb which it had known about since 2003,” a decade before Cree’s light bulb debuted, according to the lawsuit.

Dry couldn’t immediately be reached for additional comment.

David Ranii: 919-829-4877, @dranii