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Will Patent Disputes Finally Kill Tape?

I’ve been hearing people declare tape to be dead so long that it’s become cliché. While tape has seen it’s day as a direct backup medium, tape has remained the least expensive way to store large amounts of data for long periods of time, and modern tape systems are a lot more reliable than the memories of 8mm, DDS and DLT breakdowns would indicate.

Today it seems that the two companies that still make magnetic tape have decided to use their patent portfolios to keep each other from selling the latest LTO tape cartridges (LTO-7 and LTO-8) in one of the stupidest business moves I’ve seen in decades. Sony and Fujifilm have each claimed that the other’s LTO tapes violate one or more of their patents.

Well, that’s fair enough, people should get rewarded for their intellectual property, but the actions both companies have taken to protect their IP has resulted in findings that both vendors’ products infringe on the other’s patents and removing both vendors products from the market.
Industry standards organizations like the LTO alliance typically include language in their standards and membership documents that require members holding patents required to implement the standard provide licenses to other members on a fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory (FRAND) basis. That means that Sony must license its patents to Fujifilm and Fujifilm must license its patents to Sony.

If the LTO agreement includes FRAND language these two companies aren’t fighting to be the last tape vendor standing, they’re fighting over who’s patents are most key to a $100 tape cartridge to decide if Sony pays Fuji $3/tape or Fuji pays Sony $2.50/tape.

By not agreeing to allow some 3rd party arbitrator to decide this matter of a few dollars per tape while both vendors remain free to sell tapes, these two companies have put the whole tape market at risk. Tape libraries only make sense if I as a customer can rely on a steady supply of tape cartridges when I need them.

Fujifilm and Sony have just ended that steady supply of tape cartridges. If I were making a final decision between a new tape library and an object store or cloud storage I’m going to have to start figuring tape supply risk into my calculations and that can’t be good for Sony or Fujifilm in the long run.

I would call the whole situation a circular firing squad but that would take more than two participants. In markets like tape, or Fiber Channel, that are down to a small handful of key vendors those vendors can’t afford to be rough with each other over key patents without risking the whole enchilada.