An article summarizing inventor Robert Kearns’ epic battle against the automobile industry is this year’s most read IP CloseUp post with more than 21,000 visits.
The post summarizes the twelve-year patent suit mounted by Kearns, the inventor of the intermittent windshield wiper, against Ford and much of the automobile industry in the 1980s and 1990s, for stealing his invention.
“Kearns’ Son Still Fuming Over Wiper Blade Fight” generated 21,374 visits thus far in 2016, up from 6,928 in 2015. Total visits are over 30,000, which makes it the most read of almost 300 IPCU posts.
What about this story resonates with readers?
It could have something to do with the 2008 movie, Flash of Genius, that memorialized Kearns’ battle and depicted how it contributed to his mental breakdown and loss of his family.
Flash of Genius, starring Greg Kinnear as Robert Kearns and Alan Alda, as Gregory Lawson, his ambiguous attorney, opened to mixed but generally positive reviews (59% Tomato Meter; 55% Audience Score). It had a $20 million budget but grossed just $4.8 million at the box office. (Alda, of M*A*S*H fame, BTW, is a champion of understanding science and innovation, and founded the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University.)
The movie has many fans. I suspect that when it it is streamed or runs on a movie channel curious viewers run to Google hopeful of learning more about the enigmatic Kearns and his dispute with auto giants. It pitted him as David to their Goliath. (Thanksgiving weekend alone, which is prime movie-watching time, there were more than 1,500 visits to the post on IPCU.)
Even though Kearns eventually won significant awards, $10.2 million from Ford, and a total of $30 million from Chrysler, it is easy to believe that the struggle, which cost him his family and affected his sanity, may not have been worth it.
Apparently, no one thought so except Kearns, a college professor, former cryptographer in WWII and officer at a U.S. agency that was the forerunner of the CIA. (See the link to his obituary on the original IP CloseUp post, above.)
High Search Ranking
The Kearns’ post’s popularity probably also has something to do with its high Google search ranking under Kearns’ iconic name. It’s the second item after a rather tepid Wikipedia entry.
Supporters of the film include Peter Travers, long-time film critic for Rolling Stone. He gave it three out of four stars, saying “Kinnear takes the star spot in Flash of Genius and rides it to glory… Kearns wasn’t a movie hero. His halting courtroom delivery lacked Hollywood histrionics. Kinnear plays him with blunt honesty, sagging under the weight of stress but maintaining a bulldog tenacity that would win the day. Was the battle worth it? Kearns’ conflict is readable in Kinnear’s every word and gesture. His performance is worth cheering”.
Stephen Holden of The New York Times called the film “a meticulously constructed mechanism, one that wants to convey the same mixture of idealism, obsession and paranoia found in whistle-blower movies like Silkwood and The Insider,” thought it “has the tone and texture of a well-made but forgettable television movie”.
Lead actor Greg Kinnear, who in the lead role is more likable than Kearns was, won the Boston Film Festival Best Actor Award for his portrayal.
The Kearns story strikes a chord deep in everyone. It is a quintessentially American tale of the forward-thinking little guy against diverse array of nay-sayers, his family included. Kearns’ sincerity as an engineer who craved recognition for his work more than his financial security is not lost on audiences, who see Flash of Genius, weaknesses aside, as an emotional and somewhat cautionary tale that is difficult to forget.
Whether it was ego, anger, greed, or a combination, that ultimately motivated Kearns to go as far as he did for as long, the inventor’s greatest accomplishment may not be the valuable device he created, which no doubt helped save lives, but his perseverance and drive to prove that it was stolen from him.
Whether or not Kearns was selfish or unbalanced, patent holders have benefited from his trail-blazing determination and refusal to take settlement money when he needed it most.
The environment for inventors and innovative small businesses today who wish to license their rights is not much different from when Kearns fought his epic battles. In fact, the obstacles may be worse.
With “efficient” patent infringement the preferred strategy of many the leading technology companies today, and higher validity and patentability hurdles established by the Patent Trial and Appeal board and the courts, the deck continues to be stacked against IP holders – even those with the capital, time and patent quality to succeed.
[Note: A company that employs “efficient” infringement believes that it is highly unlikely it will be caught using an invention it is not entitled to, and if it does, it is unlikely that it will have to pay much. For them, not taking a patent license unless forced to by the courts is in their view a prudent business decision, ethics aside.]
For those interested in the topic of Kearns and independent inventing, the long and thoughtful 1993 New Yorker magazine article by John Seabrook on which the movie is based is not to be missed. It is available for free by going here.
To read the original Kearns post on IP CloseUp, go here.
Image source: allesantiago.wordpress.com; amazon.com