The long-standing battle between California-based telescope
juggernauts Meade and Celestron is about to expand beyond the showroom
and into the courts. Within hours of receiving a patent for technology
used in its breakthrough, low-cost ETX telescopes, Meade Instruments
filed suit in U.S. District Court against rival Celestron International
and its parent company Tasco Sales.
Meade alleges that its competitors copied "distributed-intelligence"
technology that Meade developed in bringing automatic Go To pointing
to low-cost telescopes. By distributing the programming and telescope
control among several low-cost components, Meade engineers dramatically
reduced the cost of automated telescopes compared with earlier models
that consolidated this work in a costly central processor. Go To telescopes
are revolutionizing public access to the cosmos by allowing people to
take a push-button tour of the heavens with minimal prior knowledge
of the night sky.
Before Meade introduced its computerized ETX line in January
1999, telescopes featuring automatic pointing cost several thousand
dollars and were purchased primarily by advanced amateur astronomers
and institutions. Small ETX refractors are now available for under $300
and are sold in many department and camera stores. Celestron introduced
its competing NexStar line of low-cost computerized telescopes in July
Reached in Japan during a business trip, Meade Chairman
and CEO John Diebel told Sky & Telescope that the lawsuit seeks
damages of approximately $45 million and asks that Celestron and Tasco
stop selling Go To telescopes that directly infringe on Meade's patent.
"We hate resorting to litigation," Diebel says, "but we have repeatedly
warned Celestron since August 1999 that it is stepping on our intellectual
property." Diebel further notes that such lawsuits typically take several
years to resolve and that unless Meade seeks, and is granted, a preliminary
injunction against its competitors, all parties will likely continue
to make and sell Go To telescopes.
Celestron Senior Vice President Joe Lupica says that his
company is going to aggressively fight the lawsuit. When asked how this
might affect the telescope market, Lupica answered, "the consumer has
to lose in the short term, since dollars and resources will be spent
on the [law]suit instead of improving products."
Asked the same question, Diebel spun his answer around.
"We spent a couple of million dollars and thousands of man-hours developing
the technology behind low-cost Go To telescopes. We certainly feel the
consumer has benefited greatly from this technology. Where is our incentive
to continue putting money and time into research and development of
new and better products if we can't protect our intellectual property?
We're going to be spending more than $2 million this year on R&D, and
we owe it to shareholders and consumers to protect this investment."