For many years, as far back as I can remember, Eastman Kodak has always been involved in lawsuits, both as plaintiff as well as defendant. Even as far back as George Eastman's days, Kodak always employed a pack of high-priced attorneys both to fend off lawsuits as well as to maintain their rightful and exclusive use of patents, licenses and trademarks. These attorneys would vigorously seek redress whenever a Kodak product, logo, name, process, color scheme (yellow and red), patent or license was used without proper authority or permission. Kodak even owned both the paint formula and the paint company which made Kodak Yellow, thereby preventing that exact shade of yellow from being used by others.
As early as 1925, Kodak tried unsuccessfully to restrict entrepreneurs from building ancillary businesses in the photo industry (see:Eastman Kodak v. Southern Photo Materials Nov. 19, 1925). Even before that, George Eastman would simply buy out any potential competitor, thereby assuring that Kodak reigned supreme. Those words,"reigning" and "supreme", later came back to cost Eastman Kodak a large pile of cash.
Kodak had for many years sold their color film with processing included, thereby locking out independent photofinishing laboratories from earning huge revenues. Various U.S. Courts ruled against the sale of film bundled with prepaid processing, despite Kodak having spent millions of dollars and years of litigation defending themselves.
When Kodak was "The Great Yellow Father" back in the '50's and '60's, the U.S. Congress held hearings, attempting to find Kodak guilty of being a monopoly; remember, in the 1960's, after Kodak invented the 126 cartridge film, Kodak owned a 93% market share for color film and processing in the USA. At this time, Kodak was the largest manufacturer of boxes in the world...little yellow boxes. The other 7% was fought over by Fuji, Agfa, GAF (Ansco), Konica, 3M (Dynachrome/Dynacolor made by Ferrania in Italy), and a few other private label brands. Kodak successfully defended themselves against the charge of operating as a monopoly in the U.S., but a significant crack in the door of non-competition opened when Kodak lost the bundled prepaid film/processing case.
Along the way, through the 1960's and 1970's, Kodak was constantly in court defending their various patents on its ESTAR Film Base, the Carousel Projectors, Instamatic cameras, Instamatic Pocket cameras, 126 film, 110 film, Super 8, Super 8 Sound, K10/12, E4/E6, FlashCube/MagiCube, FlipFlash, Ektaflex, Kodak Instant Cameras and Instant Film (patents stolen from Polaroid and paid for dearly in losing that infamous lawsuit), and many other innovations in the chemical, medical, industrial, and business machines divisions.
The tide really began to turn against Kodak, in my opinion, early in 1974 with the introduction of the Canon AE-1. The AE-1 was a market-changer for the entire photo industry because, for the first time, the average snap-shooter could afford to purchase and easily use an excellent 35mm SLR camera. Thus began the steady erosion of Kodak's domination in the amateur camera market, which meant the rapid demise of both 126 and 110 films and cameras. Then, ten years later, Minolta's Maxxum 7000 entered the market and removed even the variable of proper lens focus from the equation. As Kodak gradually lost film market share, and rapidly lost camera market share, the wheels really started to come off the corporate limousine.
Kodak tried to resurrect itself as a camera and film format leader with the invention of the APS (Advanced Photo System)in 1996, even involving Fuji, Canon, Nikon and Minolta in this ill-fated attempt to compete with the 35mm film format. But independent laboratories never embraced APS processing with its complicated magnetic coding, variable formatting, special cartridge, and rather small 24mm size. Many of the features which Kodak invented for APS were rarely employed by photographers and independent labs: i.e., full information backprinting, repeatable reprint quality, partial cartridge rewind memory, magnetic ID coding, and ease of scanning. APS was also killed by the almost simultaneous appearance of the first digital cameras for the point-and-shoot market. Only the actual size of the APS-C negative remains today, as a digital sensor, using the APS negatives’ dimensions.
Since early in 1997, Eastman Kodak has become the ISC, the "Incredible Shrinking Company", as it has closed factories and laboratories, sold off various parts of its corporate family, and reduced its workforce by more than 90%. Kodak has made, in my opinion, almost every wrong decision possible, including hiring their lost list of failed CEO's, the current Mr. Antonio Perez(formerly with HP) being perhaps their worst choice. Presently, Kodak struggles to survive, eking out more income from winning lawsuits than it does from actual bottom-line profits. They recently successfully sued Samsung, who improperly used Kodak's OLED technology. Now, they are suing both Apple and RIM for patent infringement of digital imaging technology. Here is the link on DP Review:
So, Kodak leads the way as an example of a once-great-but-now-failed American Corporation. Since 1997, the price of Eastman Kodak stock has dropped over 99.97%. Factoring in the rate of inflation, the value of Kodak stock has dropped over 99.999%. Retired employees, who purchased and held the stock in their 401K retirement accounts (and were encouraged by Kodak management to do so), are sorry that they listened to The Great Yellow Father. A quick look around Rochester will reveal quite a few ex-Kodakers working as Wal-Mart greeters.
Kodak now operates with a few marketing people, a tiny manufacturing arm, a drastically reduced R&D budget, and a huge pack of well compensated lawyers. George Eastman died long ago and, thankfully, will never bear witness to the complete destruction of his legacy.
On some level, an unconscious level for sure, the name Kodak, and the company’s products, are attached to our history, both large and small, from images of space to the snapshots of a newborn baby. Kodak was there for all these events, and this accounts for the odd feeling of grief we feel over its bankruptcy.
I think it must be a rare thing to have such feelings for a business enterprise. But great enterprises, like great people, eventually meet their end, and life goes on, for better or worse, without them. Still, it does seem a great loss.