U.S. Justice Department Probing Sony’s Optical Drive Unit

Sony has confirmed that it has received a subpoena from the U.S. Justice Department‘s antitrust division, seeking information about the state of the optical disk drive business in the United States. The subpoena involves Sony Optiarc America, which produces a variety of CD, DVD, and Blu-ray devices, including units used as internal and external drives on PCs. Sony also said other countries besides the United States are looking into the state of competition in the optical drive market, but no other nations have been named.

Sony Blu-ray writer (general)

Sony did not say whether the investigation concerned its Blu-ray technology, drives, or media. The Justice Department itself has declined to comment on the investigation, saying only that the nature of the investigation is not public.

Sony makes optical drives not only for its own computers, consumer electronics devices, and (of course) video game consoles, but also sells drives as components that other manufacturers use in their systems. Sony Optiarc started off as a joint venture between Sony and NEC, but NEC sold its 45 percent stake in the company to Sony in 2008. Sony also has a second optical disc manufacturing subsidiary in Ismaning, Germany.

Industry watchers speculate that if Sony Opticarc America were ultimately to be sanctioned for some reason, the overall impact on Sony’s global optical drive operations wouldn’t be catastrophic; however, until the nature and extent of other nations’ investigations are known, any forecasts regarding the outcomes of the probes would be very premature. It also isn’t know at this time whether other optical drive manufacturers have also been subpoenaed for information about the market.

[Update 27-Oct-2009: The Wall Street Journal reports Hitachi and Toshiba have been subpoenaed under the same inquiry; Toshiba’s optical drive business is a joint venture with South Korea’s Samsung, while Hitach’s is a joint venture with South Korea’s LG Electronics. In both cases, the Japanese firms hold 51 percent controlling interests.]