A Digital Death? Why Kodak Stopped Clicking

Steven J. Sasson shows the world's first digital camera (left), which he built in 1975, next to Kodak's EasyShare One, at Kodak headquarters in Rochester, N.Y., in 2005. The company is now trying to sell about a thousand patents for digital photography to prevent bankruptcy.



MELISSA BLOCK, HOST: And I'm Melissa Block.

One of the most famous companies in the world could be headed into bankruptcy soon. Kodak, based in Rochester, New York, is the famous maker of film and it's seen its profits plunged, largely because of the popularity of digital cameras. Kodak is trying to move into new product lines.

In the meantime, it's trying to raise cash by selling off a wealth of patents, as NPR's Jim Zarroli reports.

JIM ZARROLI, BYLINE: During its heyday, Kodak had one of the most innovative research departments in the world. And in 1975, it developed the digital camera, a product that would eventually be its undoing.

Willy Shih is a former Kodak executive who now teaches at Harvard Business School.

WILLY SHIH: That first digital camera was actually 13 pounds and recorded images on a tape drive. So, it wasn't exactly very portable.

ZARROLI: Over the years, Kodak has tried to jump on the digital bandwagon, making and selling digital cameras and other products of its own.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Introducing the new Kodak EasyShare digital camera and printer dock, just press a button to get real Kodak photos at home without a PC.

ZARROLI: But Kodak was never really able to capitalize on the product it had invented, and its digital strategy was something of a bust, says Rob Sethre of the consulting firm Photizo.

ROB SETHRE: A lot of it is depending on execution, and it just was not that well-executed. And the results are that they're very close to bankruptcy now.

ZARROLI: In the meantime, the profits it earned from selling film have dried up. Over the past decade, Kodak has lost money almost every year and the 123-year-old company has had to lay off most of its workforce. But Kodak does have one big thing going for it: It still owns about a thousand patents for the technology behind digital photography.

Again, Willy Shih.

SHIH: If you're the first in a field, that is one of those wonderful times, from a patent standpoint, when you get what is known as a frontier portfolio. In other words, a lot of the fundamental innovations happen early on and Kodak was in that position. So, it filed a lot of fundamental patents.

ZARROLI: Over the years, as digital photography has taken off, the innovations developed by Kodak have been widely used in smartphones, notebooks and tablets. And Kodak was able to earn a nice profit by licensing its patents to the companies that made them.

Now with its cash stream from film sales pretty much evaporated, Kodak has gone even further. It's tried to sell some of the patents outright. Rob Sethre says the company probably doesn't have much choice.

SETHRE: It's a little bit desperate. Although if you have only limited possibilities, it's actually, you know, a good and legitimate way to use your corporate assets.

ZARROLI: So far, Kodak hasn't found a buyer at a price it will accept. Kodak declines to talk about the bankruptcy rumors. The company has been trying to move into new product lines like inkjet printers, but it remains a small presence in a competitive field.

Mark Zupan, dean of the business school at the University of Rochester, says selling patents is an effort to raise the cash it needs to keep going. But Zupan says the company doesn't have a lot of time left.

MARK ZUPAN: It'll give them a year or two. The fundamental thing though is creating product lines that generate sustainable economic growth. And so far, they haven't been able to do that at a rate that compensates for how quickly the traditional film business has been declining.

ZARROLI: If Kodak does go bankrupt, its portfolio of patents could be auctioned off to pay its bills. And for now, investors are pretty skeptical the company can survive.

Kodak was once so important it was among the 30 companies in the Dow Jones Industrial Average. This week, its stock price fell well below a dollar a share, and it could be delisted from the stock exchange altogether.

Jim Zarroli, NPR News, New York.