They say that the world will beat a path to your door, but the first thing that happens when you build a better mousetrap is that someone tries to steal it.
Or someone will accuse you of stealing it from him.
And these days, inventors are fighting ever more vigorously over their stolen mousetraps.
"With the tightening of the economy, experience seems to show that patent litigation increases," said William Thomson, a patent litigator in the Los Angeles office of Hogan & Hartson LLP.
The expensive battles can cost businesses anywhere from $2 million to $5 million in legal bills if the case goes to trial. So patent attorneys acknowledge that litigating a case is an expensive risk to take.
In the select cases detailed below, Los Angeles-based Stamps.com Inc. and Torrance-based American Honda Motor Co. Inc. were accused of infringement and went to trial with different results. Meanwhile, Manhattan Beach-based Skechers USA Inc., which has faced copyright battles in the past, faces a patent case.
Stamps.com licked a $35 million patent infringement lawsuit in June when the company successfully staved off claims that its digital postage technology infringes on the patents of inventor Salim Kara.
The Internet-based company, which reported $85.8 million in revenue for 2007, provides downloadable software to consumers and companies, who can then use the software to print official U.S. Postal Service postage from their personal computers.
Stamps.com, one of three postage providers licensed by the Postal Service for the right to offer computerized stamp services, was accused of infringement in a lawsuit brought by Kara in 2004. Kara, chief executive of Houston-based Kara Technology Inc., claimed Stamps.com's NetStamps application, which prints postage labels, infringes on two of his patents. But in June, a Los Angeles federal jury disagreed and denied Kara's demand for $35 million in damages from Stamps.com.
In the trial, which lasted three weeks and featured testimony from cryptology experts, Stamps.com's lawyer argued that Kara's patents were not similar to its technology.
Los Angeles-based Phil Graves, of Graves Law Office PC, argued that Stamps.com's labels do not work based on code numbers that act as a signature, which is what Kara alleged.
Instead, Graves said the printed labels feature a serial number. A corresponding code number is stored on a server and not directly printed on the label, as specified in Kara's patents.
"The request is sent to servers at Stamps.com where the data with the postage amount is printed onto the label or envelope," Graves said.
But not all Los Angeles companies have been lucky in their patent battles.
Last month, American Honda Motor Co. Inc. and its Honda of America Mfg. Inc. division lost a San Diego federal trial after the L.A. subsidiary of the Japanese auto giant was sued over its vehicle navigation systems.
Las Vegas-based American Calcar Inc. claimed 15 of its patents were being infringed, but a judge only allowed five to go to trial. A jury decided that two of Calcar's claims were valid and awarded the company $24 million in damages.
American Calcar alleged that Honda copied two of its patents for technology that alerts a driver if there is something wrong with the car. The other patents were for voice-command information search.
"The patents are about giving the driver additional information, and prompting them to get coping information from the system itself," said Gary Butter, a New York-based attorney who represented American Calcar. "If there was a problem with the tire pressure, then you would get something that said: 'There is an issue with your tire, would you like to get more information?' It gives you a choice."
Before the trial began, a federal court judge ruled that Honda was infringing on all five of American Calcar's patents. A jury was then asked to decide if American Calcar's patents were valid and enforceable, as well as what damages Honda should pay.
The jury agreed that two of the patents were valid and enforceable, and tagged Honda with $24 million in damages. Honda also faces additional damages in a second trial over whether the infringement was willful.
Honda executives said they were disappointed by the guilty verdicts and plan to appeal.
If the shoe fits
Another patent battle is beginning to brew in Colorado federal court between Crocs Inc. and Manhattan-Beach based Skechers.
Crocs, the Boulder, Colo.-based maker of the colorful lightweight footwear, in July filed suit against Skechers, claiming it is infringing on Crocs' patent and trademark designs.
Skechers rejects the charges.
"We believe that this lawsuit is completely without merit and will vigorously defend ourselves against such baseless allegations," Philip G. Paccione, general counsel and executive vice president of Skechers said in a statement.
Skechers is known for quickly designing and manufacturing trendy footwear. The company has also been sued by several competing shoe manufacturers. Shoemakers, including Vans Inc. and Asics Corp., have taken Skechers to court over allegations that Skechers' products too closely resemble versions of the companies' shoes, infringing on their trademark rights.
Unlike the Vans and Asics suits, Crocs is making a patent case. Crocs claims that the company is copying three patents granted for the clog design that has made the foamlike shoe famous.
Crocs also claims Skechers is trying to capitalize on the success of the Crocs' product while creating confusion among consumers about whether Skechers' clogs are related to Crocs' shoes.
Crocs has made its name in the footwear market by manufacturing shoes with its trademark closed-cell resin "Croclite" material that is soft and odor-resistant.
Crocs started selling its marquee clog in 2002, and has since developed several other shoe designs, including sandals and casual footwear. The company sells its shoes at mall kiosks and retailers throughout the country, including high-end department store Nordstrom and specialty sports outlet Dick's Sporting Goods.
The company is seeking an injunction against Skechers, legal fees and unspecified damages.
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