Nearly 20 years ago, a 22-year-old graduate in architecture named Christian Thee had what he thought was a "fun" idea-to design a board game on the theme of buying and selling art. Ten years later, Parker Bros., to whom he had submitted his idea four times, came out with Masterpiece, a board game on the theme of-guess what-buying and selling art. A few weeks ago, Thee won a case against the company-which they are appealing-and was awarded about $400,000 in royalties.
This is not a story about Thee, but rather about his lawyer, Carl E. Person of Manhattan. Person, 42, specializes in "theft of idea" cases-an obscure area of law that has so far, he says, netted him zero money and a lot of headaches.
Person is himself a man of ideas, three of which are represented by the plaques on his door in the building near. Wall Street where he has his office. One announces his law practice, another the school for paralegal training he runs to finance his law practice, and a third the National Private Court System, an arbitration service he hopes will replace the overcrowded government system.
That's right, a private court system. It makes perfect sense to Person, who says he has signed up 37 judges but no, uh, cases yet. The idea is that the two sides in a civil suit (the private court system would not be available for criminal matters) would in effect hire a judge they could both agree on, thus saving the time and money of the overloaded state courts. Not only that, the two sides could hire a judge with expertise in a particular field.
This is just one idea, one of many. Person, a high school dropout at 16 ("I hate being cooped up") and a graduate of Harvard University Law School, pursues his somewhat idiosyncratic career with the intensity of a workaholic and the zeal of an evangelist.
Person, a chubby man with a New York City pallor, was described as a "maverick" in an article in the Libertarian Party's magazine, Reason. He serves as a reminder that not all lawyers are corporate pin-stripers, that some of them choose to challenge the system rather than serve it. While his iconoclastic approach may seem unusual, he sees himself merely as someone who is trying to wrest control of the legal system from the interlocking networks that make up the Establishment.
Take the game cases, of which he now has six, all but two against Parker Bros. ("I'm specializing in Parker Brothers," he said.)
One has to do with a little green plastic car called the SSP (supersonic power) and whether or not Person's client, Jerome Lemelson, invented the gizmo you pull to get it moving. Other clients are challanging King Oil, Lost Gold and The Inventors.
The litigation, expensive and time consuming, Person pictures as a classic David and Goliath struggle-one under paid, understaffed but dedicated lawyer against battalions of Parker Bros. mouthpieces earning astronomical fees. "I lock horns with the management of companies," he said. "It's them or me." Future revelations from his cases will "rock Parker Brothers to the core."
Parker Bros. President Randolph P. Barton denies his company has stolen anybody's game, and a company spokesman said the suggestion was "not only insulting but illogical." It would have cost the same to pay royalties to Thee as to the design firm, Marvin Glass and Associates, from whom they say they purchased the Masterpiece idea. The company, in appealing the six-man jury verdict that Parker Bros. was guilty of fraud, will, erase "this smear on our integrity and good name," they vow.
The byzantine world of toy design-where inventions are so top secret that security at big firms rivals that of the CIA-works to the disadvantage of the independent toy inventor, according to Person, as do the patent laws and the expense of the legal system, he said.
The last problem-the expense of litigation-Person has a solution for. Last year he got the okay to sell shares in lawsuits to finance the cost of them for "average guys" who would not otherwise be able to afford them.
"The problem was nobady bought shares" in Thee's suit, Person said. "I think I have a marketing problem." Obviously, what he needs to what he plans to do. With what money?
"My girlfriend and I are producing a show which she has written. It's called 'The World's First Country-Western Women's Lib Musical Comedy.' We call it 'World's First' for short. I hope I'll earn enough from the show-which I'm sure is going to be very successful-to open a brokerage firm."
The show, which as yet has no firm opening date, will be done as a nonunion showcase, probably in the 280-seat cabaret of New York's Ethical Culture Society, Person said. His girlfriend, Lu Ann Horstman, has worked on the show for seven years.
What with the lawsuits, the school, the court system and the musical comedy, Person works seven days a week.
"The school is may laundromat," he said, "it provides the quarters I need to live on. I urge other lawyers to work as taxi drivers or waiters or whatever to get money so they can take on lawsuits they want to. Earning a living saps your creativity . . ."
The school, which teaches a 13-week, $1,400 paralegal course, not only provides him with an income so he can take on his theft-of-idea lawsuits, it also provides volunteer legal help. But it, too, is the source of a legal battle, because he refuses to be licensed. So he's filed a suit against the Bar Association to stop them from certifying paralegal schools such as his. He's suing them because the schools that are certified, he said, advertise this fact, which he considers unfair competion to his school.
"They're killing me," he moaned. "I'm already highly regulated. I don't need to be certified."
Problems, problems, problems.
He has another case involving a television script called "Dummy," over which he has, on behalf of his two clients, sued CBS and Warner Bros. "It's a two-hour vid-pic already in the can," he said, lapsing into Variety-ese. It's about a deaf and mute man accused of murder who decides to defend himself. Person said it had been scheduled but "they had to unschedule it" after he filed suit.
A spokesman for Warner Bros. said the show had been rescheduled, but not because of any legal action. It is scheduled for May.
His first lawsuit, taken on when he was working out of his apartment at 1 Fifth Ave., was against General Motors and offered him a taste of his future battles with corporations. At issue was his charge that "the franchise system is illegal . . . but the Supreme Court didn't buy my argument."
Christian Thee got involved with Person in 1975, five years after he decided his game idea had been repped off by Parker Bros.
"I went up to Salem in 1970 to show them this little card game I had unvented," said Thee, a stage designer and trompr l'oeil painter. "This was after I'd submitted Masterpiece-which I called Artifact-in 1960, '64 and '65. I'd heard they'd recently come out with an art game so I thought, great, may be now they'll consider mine. I saw Randolph Barton, and asked him about the art game . . . he called down to the stockroom and a short time later a cellophane-wrapped box was brought in. I felt very apprehensive. I opened it up and in essence it was the same game. Mine had selling-to-the-bank spaces. I had miniature paintings and they did too . . ."
In all, Person said, there are "18 elements" common to both games, the most significant being the "round, circular track" in the middle. "There was nothing in the Parker Brothers game that wasn't in my client's game," he said.
"It was a strange feeling," Thee recalled. "It was like suddenly having formaldehyde pumped into your veins. There was a flash of intimidation. They had such a good reputation . . . It was like a form of rape-only of your mind, not your body."
For about a year afterward, Thee said, he went into a "serious depression." Transactional analysis helped a lot, he said.
The jury did not award Thee punitive damages-which are being pursued in yet another suit in which Person alleges Parker Bros. knowingly withheld information that would have related to the case and his client's request for damages. In addition, they're suing Glass Associates in Chicago in a suit similar to the Parker Bros. action. Both Parker Bros. and Glass Associates deny the charges.
Thee waited so long to sue, he said, because-after an initial exchange of angry letters with Parker Bros.-he was advised by another law firm to "forget it."
A Parker Bros. spokeman said that for the past seven or eight years the company has discouraged independent inventors because the legal complications are so great. Instead, she said, they deal with about 50 design firms. They publish about 60 board and card games a year, including the classic Monopoly (which is, indidentally, the source of another Person lawsuit-so far unsuccessful-on behalf of the inventor to claim that Parker Bros. illegally monopolizes the game market).
"It's all part of the overall plan I have to accomplish something for the long-run advantage of the country," Person said. "We've got to have a means of getting capital for the small investor, so that people who have ideas can do so that people who have ideas can do their thing . . . I enjoy doing the different thing, I live for the new idea. I'm for competition, I'm against regulation. I favor replacing the public school system with a voucher system, I. . . ." CAPTION: Picture, Carl E. Person; by S. Karin Epstein for The Washington Post