Kearns’ Son Still Fuming Over Wiper Blade Fight

Unreasonably high patent licensing hurdles are a “license to steal” –

In messages from Robert Kearns’ son, Dennis, received this week by IP INSIDER (now, IP CloseUp), it is apparent that the rift over his family’s two-decade invention battle with the Ford, Chrysler and other automobile manufacturers while officially over has not gone away.

I received this response from Dennis to comment on what he had learned from his father’s experience:

“As long as courts continue to make injunctions on patents ‘hard to get’, where is the incentive for Automotive Infringers to stop? The industry standard continues ‘Take now, Pay later, maybe.’ I liken it to a rapist who when caught, agrees to pay the local hooker’s rates and call it even.”

When I asked Dennis to elaborate if he wished, he responded in an email:

“When we went to trial with Ford the most they had ever paid was 11 cents a unit for a license  Judge Cohn ruled the only evidence we could put on was what a ‘willing buyer, willing seller’ would negotiate. My father was never a willing seller of a license.

Kearns won one of the best known patent infringement cases against Ford Motor Company (1978–1990) and a case against Chrysler Corporation (1982–1992), writes Wikipedia, from which he netted about $30 million. He probably could have won more if he had settled, but he was out to make a point about invention theft.

Having invented and patented the intermittent windshield wiper mechanism, which was useful in light rain or mist, he tried to interest the “Big Three” auto makers in licensing the technology. They all rejected his proposal, yet began to install intermittent wipers in their cars, beginning in 1969.

In 1976, Kearns’s son bought an electric circuit for a Mercedes-Benz intermittent wiper, reported the Washington Post in a 2005 obituary. Kearns took it apart, only to discover it was almost identical to what he’d invented. He had a nervous breakdown soon after.

“Bob Kearns wanted to make and sell electronic windshield wiper systems,” continues Dennis Kearns. “Prof. White doesn’t seem to grasp that if all your customers steal your technology, who are you to sell to? Should you make it and store it on a shelf to be a manufacturer? Without injunctions the Auto Industry is happy to wait you out, drive you crazy, and maybe decades later pay a reasonable ‘willing buyer, willing seller’ royalty plus interest.

Not-Invented-Here Syndrome

“I’ve noticed in the Auto Industry the people you have to sell to are the guys whose job it was to invent what you did,” continues Dennis Kearns. “The in-house attorney’s view their job as 1) minimizing loss, not maximizing gain and 2) sheltering upper management and the public from reality. I recall a conversation with Dr. Ernst Fuhrmann, CEO Porsche. He said as an engineer I feel bad [that] as CEO my job is to maximize profit.

“I am pleased that by the time we went to trial with Chrysler, inventors where thanking my Dad because they were getting royalties of $2 a unit. A long way from the 11 cents. I believe my Father’s lawsuits and publicity helped make that change. That encouraged innovation. I don’t think all the blame for hurting innovation belongs to any one industry.”

Earlier in life, Robert Kearns had been a high school cross-country star, an outstanding violinist and a teenage intelligence officer in World War II for the Office of Strategic Services, a forerunner to the CIA. Kearns died of brain cancer complicated by Alzheimer’s disease in Baltimore, Maryland. The story of his invention and the lawsuit against Ford forms the basis of an illuminating 2008 film, Flash of Genius, which does a good job of depicting the challenges of reclaiming his stolen invention.

For more recent information about Bob Kearns and “Flash of Genius,” see my recent update and review here.

The article on the Kearns suit has generated more than 35,000 hits on IP CloseUp.

___________________

Someone once wrote: “Some people think Bob Kearns is crazy, if true, the world needs more crazy people like him.”

“Annals of Invention: Flash of Genius,” an incisive, 1993 article which appeared in The New Yorker and is the basis for the film about him, is a must read for those interested in Kearns inspiring life and his disputes with multiple automobile manufacturers. It provides a glimpse into the struggles of a unique inventor who was determined to persevere and did.

_________________________

Note to Readers: The sad situation for U.S. inventors and small businesses has not changed much from the time of Bob Kearns. In fact, the unauthorized use of inventions or patent “infringement” has increased.

Many successful businesses simply refuse to pay for a license if they do not have to, and subject patent holders to long and costly legal battles.

For those you who can relate to the plight of Robert Kearns, you can support infringed inventors, musicians, designers and other intellectual property owners by giving to the non-profit Center for Intellectual Property. Gifts are tax-deductible. For more information visit www.understandingip.org.

To follow IP CloseUp via Twitter visit @ipcloseup.

Feel free to leave a comment below about Bob Kearns or “Flash of Genius.”

 

Image source: monstersandcritics.com

About Bruce Berman

IP trend spotter, consultant and author.

36 Responses to “Kearns’ Son Still Fuming Over Wiper Blade Fight”

  1. Check out what G.E. did to Robert Sherman, the inventor of the window a/c unit……http://www.navlog.org/fresh_air.html…now THERE is a retro-suit waiting
    to happen!

  2. Very sad true story for Mr. Kearns. A memorial should have been given for him to try to compensate for his loss of his family. Mr. Kearns suffered deeply for what was RIGHT and JUSTICE that came so late…..

  3. Corporate America sucks. Nobody admired this nation as I spent my life doing- only to be swindled by every rich corporate ass.
    It’s sickening. And Obama completely finished it off using his paid for crinies.
    I empathize deeply with the Kearms family and all other lime him that had their idea ripped from them.

    • I think you’ve got it wrong. Obama would probably have been on the side of Dr. Kearns, while T-rump would be the one trying to screw him out of his invention. He said a number of times that he has used laws like bankruptcy law to make money (or keep his money at the expense of his creditors) -Look up the music store owner who trump screwed out of several grand pianos. They paid him $30K for his $100,000+ invoice knowing he would take it because he had to pa his own creditors to stay in business. That’s how these “conservatives” conduct their everyday business…

      • Danny – Do not be so quick to believe that President Obama would be any more sympathetic toward inventors and patent holders than Mr. Trump or a more conservative administration. Obama’s record on supporting patents and holders has been decidedly poor, and he has allowed himself to be unduly influenced by technology businesses wishing to weaken patents and the patent system.

  4. Although I’m a conservative, corporate greed along with crooked shysters burns my donkey.

  5. The art of stealing has been and always will be , how to do it and how to keep on doing it. Damn what is right and good for all. At times standing up for right is such a difficult journey that it withers the stamina of the human soul. It’s evident that wrong seems so hard to dismantle to show what it truly is, greed.

  6. I to am a modern inventer with a few patients pending and I am from Detroit,Mi my mom currently works for Ford’s and I have worked in the auto industry for many years and on new vehicle launch and have great concerns about my ideas being stolen from me.I have a few meetings set up with a law firm to move forward with my ideas.Its hard not to think that some one is just waiting to take advantage of my ideas as a modern day invertor.I am doing my research befor I sign any thing or reveal my ideas to any one,this movie and article has help me.
    Thank You,
    Douglas Serrano

    • Mr. Serrano, I just viewed this movie Flash of Genius, and what I want to let you know is simple, stick to your guns, remember your ethics and values, and never sell out to the other guy. If you invent something, just like Mr. Kearns, and someone tries to steal your idea or patent, FIGHT.

    • Mr. Serrano,hello I too hail from Detroit.A place where a lot of ideas are born.I just watched “A flash of genius “also. Now am about to watch “Wall Street” where corporate America’s motto’s is “greed is good.” I don’t know if you are aware that they have inventors workshops at Lawrence Tech, in Southfeild.But I think we should have some type of inventors union,there’s power in numbers.

  7. Michael J Pajewski Reply August 13, 2016 at 8:05 am

    Reminds me of the Tesla/Edison situation. I applaud the Inventor Mr. KEARNS. His battle, I see continues. It is Noble people like himself that make a true difference in the world. Corporations with deep pockets use their power to influence America’s lawmakers to skew “justice” in their favor. If only our lawmakers and judges would be men of honorable integrity. We do have a few of course.but it is an uphill battle for the little guy. Integrity. Morality. The Right thing to do. These virtues escape us as we seek comfort. They did not escape Mr. KEARNS

  8. So sad and tragic…saw the movie Flash Genius and Mr. Kearns was a genius in his own right..It cost him much. Nothing Ford or Chrysler paid out would ever compensate for this tragic story….

  9. Robert Kearns proved anything is possible when you put forth the effort and believe in yourself. He is a true inspiration

    Thanks, Jeremy M. Jackson
    Athens AL,

  10. So sad what Robert and his family was put through by the ford Motor company! I view what he and his family accomplished as heroic ! His story leaves me sad and empty knowing that in are great country that this man with his wounderful spark of genius that each and every person in the world who drives there car on a rainy day dont know his name aswell as the name of the manufacturer name stamped on the vehicle there driving! !

  11. The corporate world is evil beyond any comparison. Any corporation is inhuman,
    Is only an entity without ethics or morals of human or divine origins. In fact they are conceived from the very pit of hell. Corporations are a tool of Satan and will suck out the eternal soul of any human that gets in the way.

  12. i saw the movie and watched it about 20 time on internet it is captivating motivating and this along with a man and his dreams tucker,show you how persistence can win out all of the inventors working now do not stop, i have had a few not make it but it was a great ex perience

  13. I just watched Flash of Genius. It was a great movie and very interesting.

    • The situation has changed little for inventors and small businesses over the past 30 years. If anything, the situation for patent holders may be worse. “Flash” recently became available to Netflix subscribers.

  14. Great inventor…I was glad his family stood by his side even though he was separated from his wife. He was intelligent and with great dignity and values. Ford Company should be ashamed for doing this! Imagine if they did this then….what are they capable of doing now! I’m happy his son Dennis Kerans still pursues justice!

  15. Sad but educational. Glad they made a movie about him. It’s time Other terrible things Ford has done be unveiled.

  16. I just recently watched the movie Flash of Genius. We were talking tonight about our government. How sad these big industries takes away ideas from the little people who have know idea or the money to fight the BIG GUYS. I to am an inventor. I have seen how trying to help make something better and easier for Physical Education Teaching that companies who sell to Physical Educators and Teacher come into School workshops and turn around and take our ideas and can make money off them. Robert Kearns fought a fight that was for the little people yet really lost a great deal in the process. He is a true hero for all inventors cause of who he went up against and the principle of the fact that David can and will beat Goliath.

  17. Saw it tonight. Excellent movie. Wondering how true to life the story was. Seemed like a wonderful father and man of character.

    • Dana,

      “Flash of Genius” is very close to the the actual events. However, it is a dramatization, and some developments were condensed for the screen. The excellent New Yorker magazine article, “Annals of Invention: Flash of Genius,” by John Seabrook, goes into significant detail. You can access it here: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/1993/01/11/the-flash-of-genius

      From what I can gather while Greg Kinnear, the actor who played the inventor is quite likable, Kearns was known to be more difficult. Kearns did “win” the case but loose his family, and the automobile companies, not just Ford, did infringe his invention. At times he did represent himself in court. It took someone of extraordinary courage and conviction to take on such well-funded businesses. It still does.

      Bruce Berman

  18. I am not an inventor, but I have been moved by the Kearns’ story as shown in “Flash of Genius.” I would hope that someone would set up a system of recording each step an inventor takes with a possible investor/buyer/big corporation. Each step would act like a “witness” of what was said. This way both parties are protected later. This system (be it a paper trail or human witness of each step forward) should be done without either party incurring disfavor. If this is a bad idea, then someone should have a good one to protect the little inventor who needs to be encouraged with financial success and not stolen from.

    • The problem with a patent is the owner cannot dial “911” and say, “Arrest that man! He’s stealing my invention.”
      A patent is little more than a license to sue, if it the owner believes it is warranted. Patent suits are costly, risky and time-consuming. That said, some of those who with extraordinary inventions, strong patents and who can find a partner to fund their suit, have prevailed. Multiple changes in patent law facilitated by vested interests have weakened patent rights, and timid courts have made situation even worse. It’s doubtful that Kearns could have achieved today what he did in the 1980s and 1990s.

  19. Loved this Movie.yea yea yea……I feel so Bad…that his life was so hard…. he stood his ground and WON!!! I cried but cheered at the end… I Think he was a Great Man. Love to his Family
    Susan
    Email. loves2wearred@hotmail.com

  20. I just watched this movie today and was my first time hearing about this EVER. And my first thought was I BET HENRY FORD WOULD NOT HAVE DID THAT TOOOO KEARNS IF HE WAS ALIVE AT THAT time just shows the greeeeeed of the rich and HOW RIGHT KEARNS AND HIS FAMILY. MAINLEY KIDS WERE. JUST PURE BULLSHIT THOSE BIG COMPANY’S. GOOD JOB GREAT JOB TOOO THE KEARNS FAMILY IM INSPIRED. THANKYOU

  21. A truely amazing individual Dr. Kearns must have been. Just finished watching flash of genius and I sit here thinking of just how amazing it would of been to meet in person such a man with such high levels of grit and passion; although his goal seemed dumb or just flat out unimportant to an average person, the battle he put up just to prove a point was awe inspiring.The energy alone this man produced must have been a incredible.

  22. Robert Kearns is an inspiration to all mankind! Never give up, never give in, to government and corporate corruption. Keep fighting the battle for victory is always the final end!!

  23. Robert Kearns’ story is remarkable in many ways. A creative, highly educated teacher and inventor developed something useful and was robbed by the Ford Motor company of his invention. The end result is that Robert Kearns’ impact was completely marginalized, despite prevailing in his litigation. He made enormous sacrifices to underline the fact that he invented the intermittant wiper. Every creative industrial designer, who invents something new can only be commercially successful IF s/he is willing to litigate against giants.

    It is remarkable that the human spirit endures and continues to thrive in such an inhospitable environment. We want our children and our selves to be acknowleged for we do and be fairly compensated for what we contribute.

    So we need to teach our most creative, inventive collegues, friends and family that we may not receive the proper change at the checkout line, and we may be forced to “let it go,” OR give up our time and creative juices to make sure we get our fair share.

    This is part of the human condition.
    No one knows Robert Kearns today. My hope is that we think, intelligently, in our commercial environment. We need to teach THINKING which is INTELLIGENCE because

    Stupidity is a disease for which there is no cure.

  24. Not proud of Ford

  25. What happened to his wife & children?

  26. Samantha Moorehead Reply February 1, 2017 at 12:57 am

    I really enjoyed the movie on Robert Kearns, what a smart respectable man who never gave up! He fought for what he knew was the truth. He is an inspiration to other inventors and also an inspiration to anyone that believes in something. If you want to be heard you fight for what is yours. Amazing family, amazing story. May he rest in peace.

  27. Ah, Kearns’ plight seems atypical since I too had artistic work stolen in the past. I was too poor, too young and too uninformed to do anything about it. Even today I have ideas-one is for automobiles-but too afraid to put them into fruition. So I write and copyright my own books instead. I read that Denise Kearns, his son, is carrying on his fathers values. Good for him.

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