A day in December 2013, Federal Express drove up to the house and had me sign the delivering of a big envelope with a rather impressive-looking sender address in gold – and an allegation of patent infringement concerning my design of the Fisherman 12 for Seabird Designs.
WOMBLE CARLYLE SANDRIDGE & RICE
A Professional Limited Liability Company.
For a moment there I think my heart skipped a beat...
The document revealed that Legacy thought they had invented the tunnel hull (or rather tricked their attorney to believe that) and thus had the right to stop others from using this type of hull.
Re: Legacy Paddlesports, LLC
Our File No. L56020
Dear Mr. Thomasson and Officer, Director, or Managing Agent of Above Companies:
Our firm represents Legacy Paddlesports, LLC (“Legacy”).
- As we presume you are aware, Legacy and its affiliates/brands Native Watercraft, Liquidlogic Kayaks, Watertrail Gear and Heritage Kayaks, are leading manufacturers of high quality kayaks. Original and distinctive designs and interpretations are vitally important to Legacy’s success. To protect its leadership position, our client invests substantially in the development and procurement of all intellectual property rights available for these designs. For example, Legacy introduced to paddling enthusiasts such innovations as the Native Watercraft Ultimate kayak. This acclaimed watercraft has proven quite successful in the marketplace for, among other features, its unique Native Tunnel Hull™ design. The design is referred to as a groundbreaking hybrid design, as it is suitable for multiple sports and activities. As a reward for the ingenuity of this design, the United States Patent and Trademark Office issued United States Patent D548,667 (copy enclosed with this letter). This patent is in full force until 2021.
- Legacy recently learned that SeaBird Designs is producing a type of tunnel hull watercraft, the “Fisherman 12 from Björn Thomasson,” which appears to replicate many features of the Native Watercraft Ultimate kayak. See http://www.thomassondesign.com/en/news/fisherman-12-for-seabird-kayaks. We further understand that SeaBird Designs is planning to introduce this watercraft for sale in the United States at the upcoming Outdoor Retailer Show in Park City, UT, August 3-7, 2011.
We wanted to provide you with this official notice of our patent rights so that you could govern your actions accordingly. You may not have been aware of our patent and other rights. As your legal adviser can discuss with you, an owner of a U.S. Patent can stop others from making, selling, importing or using a patent product in the United States during the life of the patent. Moreover, a patent owner is entitled to damages relating to sales of infringing products, and such damages can be trebled for willful patent infringement. Willful patent infringement occurs where infringing activities continue in bad faith following notification of patent rights.
We thank you in advance for your prompt attention to this legal matter, and ask that you have your patent attorney contact the undersigned in writing prior to the start of the Outdoor Retailer Show. We specifically need to know whether you plan to offer for sale the Fisherman 12 watercraft and, if so, your basis for avoiding a conflict with our client’s U.S. patent rights. We wish to resolve our concerns in an amicable manner, but reserve all rights to take any and all actions, and pursue all available remedies, to protect our client’s interests.
WOMBLE CARLYLE SANDRIDGE & RICE
A Professional Limited Liability Company
Jacob S. Wharton
Oops! That was a bit intimidating. Being sued in America is probably quite expensive! Perhaps best to make an effort to explain the basic facts about kayaks and kayak design to those in obvious need of a little enlightenment. But the more I studied the document and the patent paper, the more irritated I became, having to spend time on such pettiness. This was my repliy:
Legacy Paddlesports has through a law firm delivered a notification about an alleged patent infringement on their patent No: US D548,667 S of August 14, 2007, regarding the design of a native watercraft hull. The target is my design for a recreation and fishing kayak named Fisherman 12, for Seabird Designs.
I am surprised and unable to see the grounds for this allegation, and maintain that my design is in no way in conflict with the Watercraft hull design or patented claim, but is built on common marine knowledge and practices, serving roughly the same needs for the same group of paddlers in the same kind of environment and doing so by utilizing the standard hydrodynamic calculations that, though centuries old, still are the foundation of most design software.
To the uninformed casual onlooker, kayaks in general may seem surprisingly alike (barring different color schemes and superficial styling), but this is to be expected – in spite of the advancements in design software, producing methods and materials, kayaks have not changed much over time, because the environment they have to perform in, has not changed.
In this case, however, even a quick glance should be enough to establish the differences in function as well as in visual design.
The patent claim is this: "The ornamental design for a watercraft hull, as shown and described".
To be patentable a product or a method must be of patentable subject matter, be novel, be non-obvious and/or involve an inventive step and be useful or susceptible of industrial application.
The Watercraft use of a tunnel hull as such is not novel in any functional or technical aspect. Tunnels have been used in many shapes and functions on different types of craft since the beginning of the 20th century, and the pros and cons are well known and documented. Looking at the bottom profile I am far from convinced that this is a patentable claim as an ornamental design either.
The Watercraft tunnel is furthermore not non-obvious nor involving an inventive step. On the contrary, anyone applying a generic tunnel hull to a recreational kayak would come up with something very similar to the Watercraft hull – except maybe for the exact curvature of the profile. But theirs is just one of many logical ways to mold the bottom shape and in no way non-obvious or inventive.
Thus, the Fisherman design follows an old traditional practice and is in no way related to the Watercraft design.
The Watercraft profile (left) shows a shallow, rounded indentation in the bottom centre, similar to the bottom shape of an inflatable craft, while the Fisherman 12 (right) utilizes a fully developed traditional tunnel.
The tunnel part itself is fundamentally differently shaped on the two hulls. On Watercraft, molded "tubes", bridged by a flat portion of the bottom – on Fisherman, the tunnel is a carved-out portion of the hull. Both solutions add to initial stability, by positioning the flotation further out from the centerline and deeper in the water – but with a significant difference: the tunnel on Fisherman 12 is above water when loaded to the design waterline.
This means that the performance is substantially different. On the Watercraft hull the tunnel bottom adds to the wetted surface, increasing the friction and slowing the craft. It also does not promote directional stability, which therefore is enhanced by ridges in the fore and the aft portion of the "bridge" – thus adding even more to the wetted surface and turbulence. In contrast, the Fisherman tunnel has a less wetted surface for the same displacement and therefore less friction, and the straight inner surfaces give a certain directional stability without added appendices.
As a consequence of the position of the tunnel top, the waterplane is fundamentally different on the two hull systems:
The upper depicts Fisherman 12 and the lower Native Watercraft (as far as can be concluded from the patent drawings).
The below-water catamaran principle with two narrow hulls has certain well-known advantages. For this kind of craft (short, low speed) primarily these: apart from having less friction, the Fisherman hulls have a more favorable length/width ratio, which increases top speed. Furthermore, two narrow hulls track better than one wide – hence no need for tracking-improving appendices.
The side view also shows fundamental differences, due to the entirely different interpretation of the tunnel principle: in function as well as in visual (ornamental) design (Fisherman top, Watercraft below).
With these obvious differences and a claim limited to mere ornamental design, one might be forgiven to suspect an attempt to stifle unwanted competition rather than a serious action to protect a real patented matter – an action that if followed through with threats of legal action would have been regarded an actionable wrong according to European jurisdiction.
Björn E. Thomasson
In the next round Registered Patent Attorney James S. Wharton addressed himself directly to Len Ystberg, SEO at Seabird.
Dear Len Ystmark:
We have received and reviewed your communication from last week, which included comments and apparently pre-production sketches from your designer Bjorn Thomasson.
As an initial matter, we appreciate your timely action and efforts to provide additional information. This is an important matter to our client, as we have been the target of companies and individuals in the past who seek to replicate some of our innovative products forcing us to take legal action.
Turning to your response, we note that you have not yet retained US legal counsel to advise you in this regard, and recommend that you do so. Your legal counsel can advise you of the applicable laws and circumstances that can constitute unfair competition under the applicable US intellectual property laws. The references to EU laws are not applicable.
With regard to the sketches provided, we believe that further investigation and monitoring is warranted. Please provide photographs of the production version you intend to sell in the US. If you will be displaying this product at the upcoming show, representatives of my client may visit your booth to gather further information. Once we gather additional information, we can determine our further course of action under the applicable US laws.
This communication is without prejudice to the rights and remedies of my client, all of which are expressly reserved.
Jacob S. Wharton
Registered Patent Attorney
Common sense is obviously the least common of senses, and Len asked me to reply to this new assault. Now I found it very hard to take it seriously and wrote this:
I was very disappointed when Legacy Paddlesport seemed to retire from what you in your letter referred to as a position as: "leading manufacturers of high-quality kayaks... original and distinctive designs and interpretations..." and reverted to shady attempts to stop the competition from advancing the state of kayak design, thereby revealing a lack of confidence in their own ability to do so.
Trying to protect the revenues against obvious plagiarism is, of course, beneficial for the company's short-term financial results, and perhaps even contributing to a healthier marketing climate. But far-fetched and ill-conceived infringement allegations, backed up by shady legal works, conjures up visions of a pitiful company losing faith in their creative ability and resorting to throwing spanners in the continuing development of others.
Of course, my mentioning of EU laws was not a legal statement. I would have thought it obvious that it was a remark on the different views in this matter. I would also have thought that a quick glance and common sense would have revealed the allegation as preposterous, and I find it very troubling that the law and common sense in this matter are so far apart.
In this sad mess, I find it very encouraging that there seems to be an ongoing discussion of the American patent regime in the US as well. A short quotation from an inspiring recent article in the Economist:
"At a time when our future affluence depends so heavily on innovation, we have drifted toward a patent regime that not only fails to fulfil its justifying function, to incentivise innovation, but actively impedes innovation. We rarely directly confront the effects of this immense waste of resources and brainpower and the attendant retardation of the pace of discovery, but it affects us all the same. It makes us all poorer and helps keep us stuck in the great stagnation." *
Good news for us all, except for certain practitioners in your profession and companies living in the past, trying to stop time.
So, my humble advice to Legacy Paddlesport would be to find a more innovative legal advisor, one who advocates progress instead of stagnation – and to the legal advisor to cut Legacy Paddlesport out from the customers list, since your services seem to have encouraged them to become caretakers of the past instead of the glorious position you tried to conjure up in your mail.
* link to the article: https://www.economist.com/blogs/democracyinamerica/2011/08/intellectual-property
After yet another mail with legal mumbo-jumbo, the Seabird CEO lost his temper and wrote a very short, crystal clear answer, using words normally not found in legal prose.
After that, nothing more was heard and we could concentrate on producing and marketing a successful kayak for fishermen, hunters and others appreciating a useful and efficient sit-on-top.