Argus Inc., a producer of amateur cameras, today filed an antitrust suit against Eastman Kodak Co., the world's biggest maker of photographic equipment, charging that Kodak has used its near monopoly in producing film to give it an unfair advantage in selling its cameras.
Argus also accused two major manufacturers of flash equipment -- GTE Sylvania Inc. and General Electric Co. -- of conspiring with Kodak to produce flash attachments that were compatible only with Kodak cameras.
Those actions, Argus said, effectively shut it and other amateur camera producers out of the market until they could duplicate Kodak technology and make cameras that could use the new flash equipment.
The suit is similar to one filed by Berkey Photo Inc. last year. A jury awarded Berkey about $87 million in early 1978, but a three-judge appeals panel overturned most of the award last June, ordering new trials for some of the counts, upholding a few but throwing out the largest award of $45 million.
Argus, as Berkey did before it charged that Kodak violated antitrust laws several times by introducing new cameras -- first the Instamatic, then the Pocket Instamatic -- and simultaneously introducing new film that could be used only in the new camera.
Because Kodak makes nearly all the film used in the country -- and because Kodak trumpeted the new film as a vast improvement in picture-taking technology -- camera buyers deserted companies like Argus until the competitors could develop cameras that would accept the new Kodak film.
Argus said Kodak did the same thing when it introduced new home movie cameras.
The suit was filed in Federal District Court here, as was the Berkey suit, and a jury trial was demanded.
The appeals court called the Berkey suit one of the "largest and most significant antitrust suits in history," but overturned the Berkey contention that Kodak violated antitrust laws by not telling competitors enough of the details of the new film to permit them to have competing cameras on the market when the Instamatics were introduced.
But the court did uphold the lower court's finding that Kodak did violate antitrust laws by secretly developing cameras that would use the new Magicubes being developed concurrently by Sylvania.
Curiously, Argus was controlled by Sylvania at the time Sylvania developed first the flash cube and than the Magicube. But, Argus charges, Sylvania kept the developments secret even from its affiliate because Kodak so dominates the market.
Similarly, Argus charged, General Electric and Kodak conspired in developing the so-called Flip Flash illuminating device that was introduced in 1975 was compatible only with a new pocket Instamatic camera.
Kodak, with annual sales of $7 billion, is not only the largest producer of film and amateur cameras, but also dominates other aspects of the photographic industry including film processing and the production of photographic paper and developing equipment.
Argus and its subsidiary, Interphoto Corp., had combined net sales last year of about $22 million.
Argus asked the court to award it triple damages, although it did not specify an amount. The company also asked the court to require Kodak to divest itself of its camera-making operations or to force Kodak to create film cartridges required by companies such as Argus.
Because the appeal court ruling in Berkey speaks to many of the same issues in the Argus suit, observers said the small camera company could expect to have troubles proving Kodak itself violated antitrust laws by simultaneously introducing new cameras and new film.
But since the appeals court upheld Berkey's contention of an illegal conspiracy between Kodak and the two flash equipment makers, Argus will have an easier time with those claims.
One observer said Argus might wait to see whether Berkey appeals to the Supreme Court and reaches some sort of settlement with Kodak. If Kodak and Berkey reach a settlement, Argus might try to do the same, the observer said.