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Snapshots in legal drama: Polaroid inventor vs. Kodak

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The scene in Judge Rya Zobel's federal courtroom here last week was not the stuff of TV melodrama. But with the witness stand occupied by the man who may be America's foremost businessman-inventor - and with hundreds of millions of dollars riding on the outcome - it was no ordinary trial, either.

On one side is Polaroid Corporation, a company still largely dominated by its founder, Dr. Edwin H. Land, the acknowledged inventor of ''instant'' photography. On the other side is Kodak, the Rochester, N.Y., photographic giant that is the 29th-largest industrial corporation in the United States.

At issue is whether Kodak infringed any of 10 separate patents when it introduced its first instant camera in 1976.

The trial began two weeks ago, after five years of legal maneuvering by the two companies, and is expected to last at least another month. Its outcome will determine how easy it is for Kodak or anyone else to carve out part of the instant-camera market - and how much, if anything, they must pay Polaroid for the privilege of competing with it.

That is of more than passing interest to Polaroid in particular. Nearly all of the Cambridge, Mass., company's $1.5 billion in annual sales consists of instant cameras and - the more lucrative end of the business - the film that goes in them. Both Polaroid's and Kodak's instant cameras will only accept film supplied by the manufacturer.

For most of its corporate life, Polaroid had the picture-in-a-minute field all to itself. Since most amateur photographers saw Dr. Land's early cameras as a big-ticket item, Kodak was content to supply Polaroid with color negative material for its film. Its real interest was concentrating on mass sales of cheap, easy-to-use conventional cameras like the highly successful Instamatic.

In 1965, though, Polaroid introduced the Swinger, an instant black-and-white camera that cost only $14, and four years later was selling a color camera for $ 30. Kodak kicked its own research-and-development program into high gear and in 1969 the company informed Polaroid it would no longer manufacture Polaroid's film.

For a while it seemed as if there would be no contest. Polaroid's SX-70 model , introduced in 1972 and dubbed by Land ''absolute one-step photography'' - took a brighter, clearer picture than previous instant cameras, and did so without requiring the photographer to pull out the picture, peel apart the exposure, or indeed do anything at all other than push the button. Kodak, which had been developing a system requiring a peel-apart film, had to send its engineers back to the drawing boards.

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