Raymond E. Stauffer was shopping at a New Jersey mall when he noticed something peculiar about the bow ties on display at Brooks Brothers: They were labeled with old patent numbers.I mean, if you feel strongly about the topic, write Brooks Brothers' legal department a letter. But honestly, suing them because they continued to list an expired patent on a bow tie?
Mr. Stauffer, who calls himself a "sharp-dressed man," also happens to be a patent lawyer. He sued Brooks Brothers Inc. in federal court, claiming it broke the law by marking its adjustable bow ties with patents that expired in the 1950s.
He figured the retailer would have to pay a nominal amount for violating a law that bars companies from marking products with erroneous patent numbers.
A federal appellate court ruling on Tuesday breathed new life into his case by upholding his right to sue—and could pave the way for hundreds of similar suits against major companies to move forward. A separate ruling in December raised the stakes in such cases, potentially exposing product makers to huge liabilities.
And of course, this sets off a litigation gold rush:
Already, lawsuits claiming false patent markings have been brought against companies that make turkey pop-up timers, toilet plungers, fabric softener, flashlights, staplers, Frisbees, kites, telecommunications equipment, bubble gum and a toy called The Original Wooly Willy.I mean, seriously, can we say waste of time?
Defendants include companies such as Procter & Gamble, Bayer Healthcare LLC, Cisco Systems, Scientific-Atlanta, Merck & Co., Pfizer Inc., 3M Co., DirecTV, Medtronic Inc. Merck said no one was available to comment. The other companies didn't respond to requests for comment.
Marking a tube of toothpaste or paper cup with a patent that is out of date or doesn't exist has been against the law for years. It is considered anticompetitive. Until late last year, the most a violator had to worry about was paying a $500 penalty for misleading the public.
But in December, the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit in Washington ruled that defendants could be held responsible for up to $500 per offense.
Lawyers for product manufacturers now fear clients are liable for up to $500 for every tube of mascara or box of garbage bags marked with an expired patent—an error that turns out to be quite common.