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Flash of Genius: Lessons Learned from Robert Kearns

Andrew Godsey, VP Sales

I am consistently impressed with the modern-day inventors GTT represents. While GTT’s patent brokerage clients are generally large or mid-size companies, a significant portion of GTT’s clientele represent the classic inventor. These inventors immediately came to mind as “Flash of Genius”, the story of Robert Kearns, was released in movie theaters last month.

Robert Kearns was the inventor of intermittent windshield wipers (patent numbers: 3,351,836; 3,602,790 and 4,544,870). After an unsuccessful attempt to license the technology to the “Big Three”, Kearns went on to sue Ford and Chrysler for patent infringement. The case eventually ended up being reviewed by the Supreme Court. Kearn’s uphill legal battle lasted from 1978 to 1995 and cost him approximately $10M in legal fees but eventually netted him around $30M in damages.

There are a few thoughts I take away from the story of Robert Kearns:

There is a market now that wasn’t there 40, 20, or even 10 years ago. Transferring patents has become incredibly common. Most major corporations have staff and processes in place dedicated to reviewing intellectual property acquisitions. Were Robert Kearns around today, he would have many more options available to him that could have alleviated some of the costs associated with his battle against Ford and Chrysler. Which leads me to a second thought….

If Kearns would have known that his litigation would last nearly 20 years, cost $10M and take the toll on his professional/personal life that it did, would he have still chosen to litigate?

How would Kearns’ case have held up in light of KSR (KSR v. Teleflex)? Given that the primary legal defense against Kearns in the Ford case was that his patent was obvious, would the verdict have changed today?

Every day GTT advises its inventor clientele on the best path forward and gives solid advice on likely monetization outcomes regarding their patent assets.