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Multi-million dollar dispute over glaucoma tech continues

11/04/2018By Matthew Woodley • Staff Journalist
A protracted multi-million dollar legal battle being waged by the University of Sydney and a glaucoma testing company it still owns a stake in, is back before the courts.

The complicated case, which has been before the Federal Court since 2013, is centred on allegations that USyd improperly ended a licensing agreement with former spin-off company ObjectiVision, and also infringed its copyright and misused confidential information.

“We all knew the risks [of being accused of copyright infringement] given the history in this situation, so I’d be very surprised that he would deliberately copy and paste a couple of lines and put at risk all the work we’d done.”
Paul Peterson, Visionsearch director

According to a report in The Australian Financial Review, ObjectiVision was established in 1999 to commercialise patents emanating from the Save Sight Institute (SSI). One patent covered by the exclusive licensing agreement was for a system called Accumap, which measured electronic signals travelling from the retina to the brain’s visual cortex.

The system was supposedly able to find defects in the visual field associated with glaucoma much earlier than other tests. However, by 2008 the university had ended the exclusivity agreement with ObjectiVision and two years later, a new company, Visionsearch, was developing a rival glaucoma test using SSI patents.

USyd lawyers alleged in court last week that ObjectiVision, which the university still retains a 0.73% shareholding in, had become insolvent by 2007 and missed two licensing payments. USyd has also previously alleged that the company had failed contracted performance targets, as it had not sold any Accumap machines for more than five years by the time its licence agreement was terminated in January 2011.

ObjectiVision has claimed code was lifted from its ‘OPERA’ software to write Visionsearch’s ‘TERRA’ software, which itself was developed by many of the same people who were involved with the development of the original system. Associate Professor Alexander Klistorner, an SSI member whose research had driven the creation of Accumap, became an advisor to Visionsearch, while the device’s programmer, Mr Vadim Alkhimov, became the company’s lead programmer after taking redundancy from ObjectiVision in early 2008.

Additonally, Dr Christopher Peterson – who had joined SSI in 2009 to manage its relationship with ObjectiVision and its founder and major shareholder, Mr Arthur Cheng – founded VisionSearch in 2010.

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According to AFR, one of the company’s directors, Mr Paul Peterson (son of Chris), told the court that Alkhimov did not copy any ‘OPERA’ code in his writing of Visionsearch’s ‘TERRA’ software system. However, he conceded it did “not look good” when some lines of identical code were found in a comparison of the two softwares, made after ObjectiVision won the right to preliminary discovery of Visionsearch’s source code in 2014.

Despite this, Peterson, who is also a software engineer, testified that Alkhimov must have transcribed that code from a notebook as part of a genuine attempt to “start from scratch” when developing the new software – the first version of which had 30,000 lines of code.

“We all knew the risks [of being accused of copyright infringement] given the history in this situation, so I’d be very surprised that he would deliberately copy and paste a couple of lines and put at risk all the work we’d done,” Peterson said.

Visionsearch’s glaucoma test has already received regulatory approval in Europe, the US and Australia, while it also recorded sales of its testing machine to SSI and an undisclosed hospital. Meanwhile, ObjectiVision does not appear to have any ongoing business and is financially supported solely by Cheng.

The case is scheduled to run until April 20, however lawyers for ObjectiVision told the court that an extension on time was likely due to the complicated nature of the trial and pending appearances of several international expert witnesses.

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