A Gaithersburg inventor hopes a chain of events that started in 1953, when a champagne cork blinded him in one eye on his wedding night, may come to a close late next year.
The inventor, Robert W. Kearns, has filed suits accusing six automobile manufacturers in the United States and Europe of infringing on patents that he holds for intermittent windshield wipers. Kearns' attorney estimates that settlement of those suits, and one filed against Kearns by a supplier to two of those automakers, could take until the end of 1984 or even into 1985.
Kearns said he worked on intermittent wipers--their speed and interval between movements can be adjusted for light rain or snow--partly because of his accident. "Being cognizant of eyes and thinking of God as a good engineer," he said, he realized that "your eyelids don't come down and up continuously--they blink--so I made wipers that blink."
Kearns has rejected a settlement offer from the defendants, Ford Motor Co., Chrysler Corp., Volkswagen, Porsche, Audi and Daimler Benz--along with SWF-Spezial Fabrik fur Autozubeho r Gustav Rau G.m.b.h., a German subsidiary of International Telephone and Telegraph. His attorney, Keith V. Rockey of Chicago, characterizes the settlement as worth "a tidy sum."
The inventor says he wants not only to win his case and receive back royalties but also to advance the fight for the changes he believes are needed in the U.S. patent system.
He complains that his patents will expire before the suits are settled, and he wants courts to be given the power to extend patents if holders involved in suits have been diligent in pursuing patent-infringement actions. He also charges that his opposition is using excessive delay as a tactic in responding to various legal actions as a tactic.
However, Paul Craig, a District of Columbia attorney representing Daimler-Benz, Porsche and SWF, noted that the first of the patents cited in the suits was granted in November 1967, but the first suit was not filed until 1978. Kearns said he had to become aware of the alleged infringements before he could file suit.
"SWF's position basically is that his patents are not valid and, if they are valid, that they're not infringed and, additionally, that Mr. Kearns has committed certain acts of unfair competition in his approach to this situation," Craig said.
Kearns has a solid and varied background for an inventor: a bachelor of science degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Detroit in 1952, a master's in engineering mechanics from Wayne State University in 1957 and 11 years' there as an engineering professor, a Ph.D. in 1964 from Case Institute of Technology, and five years as Detroit's commissioner of buildings and safety engineering. He also worked at the National Bureau of Standards in Gaithersburg from 1971 to 1976 as the principal investigator for highway skid-resistance in wet weather--working on the test procedures and equipment that became the national standard. He holds more than 30 patents, most involving intermittent wipers.
Before Kearns filed his suits, he showed his electronic-based intermittent-wiper system to Ford, which showed him a pneumatic-based system that it was working on.
Clifford Sadler, Ford's counsel for patents, trademarks and licensing, said that Ford probably gets 200 unsolicited ideas a year, ranging from simple suggestions to complex proposals for new products. "They're all looked at," he said. According to Sadler, many inventors are "not aware of the state of automobile technology. To sell an idea, you have to have more than a bare idea. There has to have been some development work to establish the device's feasibility."
He said that the company checks all of its new products to see if they infringe upon existing patents, and that there have been instances where Ford has asked for licenses to use patented devices produced by other companies or individuals.
Kearns may gain some hope from a 1981 patent-infringement case involving power-steering pumps. Ford lost that one, and had to pay the inventor $650,000, or 10 cents apiece for 6 million power-steering pumps. But Sadler says that's the only patent case Ford has lost in 11 years.