When it comes to protecting its intellectual property, Canon is among the most litigious. Whether printer ink or lenses for the RF mount, the company spends significant effort shutting down unregistered third party brands. From the outside looking in, this can come off as petty, aggressive, or even greedy.
Photographers in particular regularly cite dissatisfaction with how there simply are no other options outside of Canon’s first-party glass for the company’s mirrorless cameras — a stance I have shared.
While I do think Canon needs to loosen its grip and work with established and well-respected manufacturers like Sigma and Tamron, recent investigations into a situation with CFexpress cards got me thinking: perhaps we’ve been too hard on Canon.
I want to preface this by saying that historically I’ve chosen to shoot Canon for my photo work. I started out in digital with a Rebel XTi way back in high school and eventually graduated to the 60D, then the 5D Mark III, and even used the 1DX Mark III for years before moving on with Canon into mirrorless. I now shoot a combination of the R5 and R3, depending on my needs.
As a lifelong Canon shooter, I perhaps hold the company to a higher standard than I do other brands. I want to better myself daily and I tend to hold the companies with which I do business to that same standard. I want Canon to push the envelope, make great products, and do the right thing.
As a result, I’ve praised Canon perhaps less than I’ve pushed to hold the company accountable. I reported on Canon’s stance on environmental policy multiple times, been on the record as calling the company’s lawsuits against third-party printer ink as petty, and have joined Chris Niccolls and Jordan Drake in calling for Canon to loosen its iron grip on the RF mount and let other brands play in that sandbox.
But after going down a deep rabbit hole investigating the current state of CFexpress cards and understanding that situation, I started to look at what Canon is doing a little bit differently. A little bit… softer.
Comparing Canon to CFexpress
The Compact Flash Association, or CFA, has been working behind the scenes to wrangle control of its intellectual property for some time now. Because so many of the brands that produce CFexpress cards are based in China, that has been difficult as many in the country don’t play by the established rules in the west, either because they are ignorant of these rules or they don’t care to follow them.
Compared to Canon, the CFA is quite small and its situation is complicated due to the makeup of its membership and how its leadership interacts with those manufacturers. The addition of new standards, namely VPG, has further complicated matters and has led to a good amount of foul play that isn’t good for the end consumer. For more on that, make sure to read my detailed story from late last year.
But, in short, what that situation came down to were less than reputable brands faking their way into the marketplace and undercutting the companies that were playing by the rules. That resulted in worse performance for the consumer that they might not have realized was due to underhanded chicanery.
I think Canon looks at its situation with the RF mount in a similar light. Behind closed doors and in conversations with industry experts over the years, I learned that despite what many photographers might believe, Canon’s DSLR EF mount was very likely never explicitly licensed to anyone — at least not to start with. I’ve been told by many with knowledge of the situation that most, if not all, third party autofocus-equipped DSLR lenses for Canon cameras were reverse-engineered.
Canon may have at the time seen this as an advantage as it pushed to separate itself from Nikon whom it had played second fiddle to during the film days. If Canon’s EF mount was seen to have more options, perhaps that would mean more widespread adoption. It’s very easy to argue this is the exact reason we haven’t seen Nikon fight against third-party brands: right now, it’s not in the company’s best interest.
For whatever reason, whether it be the inability to legally stop these companies or the fact that Canon saw some benefit to their existence, Canon allowed these lenses to proliferate. But when it came time to switch to a new mount, Canon saw fit early on to nip that in the bud this time.
You’ll notice that the established brands like Sigma and Tamron didn’t attempt to release a reverse-engineered autofocus-equipped RF-mount lens (perhaps because both attempted to do so through the proper channels but were shut down — we’ll probably never know), but South Korean-based up-and-comer Samyang definitely did, as did the China-based Yongnuo. Viltrox was the first company to publicly acknowledge it had been issued a cease and desist from Canon after it attempted to sell a reverse-engineered RF-mount lens.
“Canon believes that these products infringe their patent and design rights and has therefore requested the company to stop all activities that infringe Canon’s intellectual property rights,” Canon said at the time.
The first defense of third-party lenses is that they’re at worst harmless and at best beneficial to the brand. From this perspective, the idea is that buyers will know that what they are buying can be a more affordable and therefore less performant alternative to first-party glass. There are those that argue the availability of more affordable optics is actually beneficial to a camera maker, since it provides newcomers with a way to buy into a camera system for less.
I actually was, and to some degree still am, in agreement on both of these points. I firmly believe that more choice is better for a consumer and newcomers benefit from cheaper lens alternatives. Camera companies still make money on the sale of the camera and, eventually, consumers will upgrade to more expensive optics and continue on with the brand over time.
I am a walking example of this. As mentioned, I’ve shot Canon for over 20 years and I started out with a Sigma zoom lens. I didn’t buy first-party Canon glass until several years later, but the fact a Sigma lens existed let me, a high school student on a shoestring budget, get into digital photography.
However, I now see that this boon for me was not necessarily one shared by all parties. Perhaps it was less of a big deal back in the DSLR days, but with the massive influx of Chinese lens manufacturers (which exhibit varying levels of quality), Canon has reacted in kind. With one of the largest mirrorless camera market shares and unable to verify that this seemingly unending stream of lenses pouring out of China deliver high enough quality to provide a Canon shooter with a good experience, it makes sense that Canon no longer feels compelled to sit idly by and allow lens mount infringement to continue.
As I saw with the CFA, Chinese brands are very happy to ignore patents, laws, and even standards designed to protect the consumer. From Canon’s perspective, I can see how it believed the cease and desist was the best option, even if it is not without its downsides — including concerning Canon’s reputation among photographers yearning for more lens options.
For those who argue that it’s on consumers to separate the wheat from the chaff and that more lenses are better for everyone, fair enough. But continuing with the CFA comparison, we’ve seen companies falsely misrepresent their products using established standards and logos. How easily would it really be for Canon owners to be able to trust certain third-party lenses?
In a market where price understandably matters so much to customers, who could blame someone for opting for the cheapest available option? Photography is an expensive endeavor, sometimes prohibitively so. But if — or really, when — someone has a bad experience with an unlicensed, unregulated lens, how does that reflect on the camera maker?
Not Wholly Forgiving, But More Understanding
I firmly believe Canon needs to reasonably work with Sigma and Tamron which are extremely reputable brands that deliver consistent and often affordable lenses, but at the same time, I get why the camera maker has fully clamped down on its IP outside of a few manual focus lenses manufactured by Cosina.
Canon will, eventually, allow third-party lens makers to produce autofocus-equipped optics for its RF cameras; I just can’t believe Canon would keep the mount closed indefinitely. But until then, despite wishing things were different, I get it.