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Winning Inventor Likes the Money, Loves the Cause

November 17, 1990

DETROIT (AP) _ Robert Kearns’ voice lacked the giddiness one would expect from someone about to get a $10.2 million check from a huge corporation. To the 63-year-old inventor, getting justice from the patent system is even more important than the money.

Kearns settled a 12-year-old patent infringement lawsuit against Ford Motor Co. last week. And he still has similar suits pending against other automakers.

At issue was his patent for intermittent windshield wipers, which go on and off periodically. They are a part of nearly every new car sold these days.

For Kearns, who lives in a one-bedroom rented apartment with rented furniture in Houston, the money isn’t bad, but the case is mainly about winning fairness.

″I don’t mean to be so harsh on the patent system, but an infringer can just follow what has happened in this case and usurp the ability of inventors to start new businesses,″ Kearns said in a telephone interview from a friend’s house in Maryland, where the settlement was approved.

Ford attorney Malcolm Wheeler said the settlement was fair but Ford would have won if the case had been retried.

There will be several million left for Kearns after the Ford settlement is shared with his attorneys. It will easily be enough to buy a house he wants in Texas and to finance his legal battles against 19 other automakers.

″If I don’t go further, there really isn’t a patent system,″ he said.

Each of Kearns’ suits alleges basically the same thing - that the companies profited from his windshield wiper patent and he should share the money they made.

Settling the cases or winning in jury trials could mean more millions for Kearns. And millions more for attorneys.

Kearns and one member of his legal team, Bill Durkee of Houston, declined to say how much the case against Ford cost. There have been estimates that legal bills ran more than $300,000. A standard contingency fee of one third of the settlement would give Durkee’s firm $3 million to $4 million.

″(Lawyers) are running a business,″ Kearns said. ″I’m running a cause.″

Kearns had claimed he installed a set of intermittent wipers on a Ford and took it to the automaker. Kearns, a professor at Wayne State University in Detroit at the time, said he was led to believe Ford would buy his invention by the number of questions engineers asked.

When that failed to happen, he sued.

Originally, Kearns sought $141 million from Ford. In July, a jury ordered Ford to pay $5.2 million, plus interest, for patent infringement, for a total of $8.5 million to $11.5 million. Kearns appealed the award and the settlement was reached before the appeal could be decided.

Ford dealers have sold an estimated 20 million Ford, Lincoln and Mercury cars with intermittent wipers. After legal defense costs, the settlement nets Kearns 33 cents per car.

The problem as Kearns sees it is the patent system’s failure to protect small inventors from predator corporations by making it difficult to prove the validity of their patents.

The mere mention of some similar device recorded somewhere before the patent was issued could be ammunition in a corporation’s legal guns.

″The inventor is up against every dusty library in the world,″ Kearns said.

In some cases, the patent system works fine.

″If a person was an inventor whose only intent was to conceive of something and then pass it on to someone else, maybe that’s still viable,″ Kearns said.

But when someone like Kearns wants to bring an invention to market, the patent system is a roadblock because it allows for a legal morass like the one Kearns found himself in.

And that goes back to money.

″I think the thing that would help the inventors most would be fast trials,″ said patent attorney Richard Samuel of Philadelphia. He represented Gordon Gould in his successful patent fight over the laser.

″I think that probably from a legal perspective, the problem is more one of the cumbersomeness of the courts,″ Samuel said. ″It’s an expensive process and the individual inventor can’t afford to go through the courts.″

Samuel said things are getting better for inventors though. In the early 1980s, a federal appeals court was established just for patent cases.

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