Tool Maker Loses Lawsuit For Not Violating Another Company's Patents

from the exclusivity? dept

Patent system supporters regularly point (slightly misleadingly) to the claim that the patent system gives patent holders the right to exclude others from using their inventions. And, thus, most lawsuits we see around patents revolve around cases involving a company manufacturing a product that includes a patented invention. But what about a lawsuit for a company that deliberately chose not to license or use a patented technology, because it was too expensive?

Welcome to today's world.

A few years back, there was a lot of attention paid to videos from a company called SawStop that made a pretty cool product that protected your fingers from a table saw. You may have seen the videos:
The company tried to license the invention to various table saw makers, but after evaluating the technology, many were not convinced how well it worked and felt that the cost was way too high (both for themselves, and for consumers). In fact, some appeared to fear that if they did adopt this technology and then someone still got hurt, they were asking for a big lawsuit for promoting this technology as a safety feature.

But what about the other way around? Could someone be so bold as to actually sue for using a table saw that did not have this technology?

ChurchHatesTucker alerts us to the story of a lawsuit in Boston that involved a guy whose hand was damaged in a table saw accident while using a table saw from Ryobi. The guy's complaint was that Ryobi should have included this technology and that it should be required to protect hands. And, amazingly, the jury sided with the guy.

Yes, you read that right. The jury effectively claimed that any table saw maker is liable for injuries if it does not license this technology and build it into its table saws.

That, of course, conflicts with that basic "exclusivity" part of patent law -- and would effectively mean that SawStop has now been given total defacto control over who can be allowed to sell table saws in the US. That clearly is not what the law was intended to do. The government should never require companies to have to purchase a patent license for a technology they don't believe the market wants. And, in this case, the ruling has resulted in numerous other lawsuits against other table saw makers -- and a near guarantee that the price of table saws will go way up. Old saws can't be retrofitted, and table saw makers need to totally change their manufacturing process and greatly increase costs to offer this technology.

This seems blatantly wrong. If the government is going to require companies to use a patented technology, it seems that the only reasonable solution is to remove the patent on it and allow competition in the market place.

Filed Under: patents, requirements, safety, saws
Companies: ryobi, sawstop

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  1. icon
    Hugh Mann (profile), 21 Mar 2010 @ 11:22am

    Not quite as nefarious as you suggest...

    I think you have twisted the story just a bit on this one. The lawsuit (without having all the details and complaints at hand), appears to be a garden-variety product liability claim. Plaintiff says defendant was negligent in manufacturing and selling this product without addressing certain safety issues. Kinda like suing Ford for making Pintos that explode - a behavior generally unexpected in automobiles by most consumers.

    The plaintiff likely made the case that there was an available technology that was reasonable to include in the saw that would have prevented/reduced his injury, and the defendant was negligent in not doing so, because they knew, or should have known, that people were going to have blade-hand interactions in using the saw.

    This is a big reason for the safety devices ALREADY in use on power tools today. Many of them require two switches to be operated (i.e., both hands are in specific places), or have guards over various moving parts, etc. These are all ways of reducing the risk of operator injury, and, therefore, the financial risk to the manufacturer of product liability and negligence lawsuits.

    The jury (not the court - the jury, made up of twelve local citizens, not patent experts) after hearing all the evidence (including, presumably, cost information by the defendant), deliberated and decided that, all things considered, the defendant did not perform its legal duty of a reasonable standard of care in manufacturing the saw in a way that would address this problem it knew or should have known about.

    This verdict does not require anybody to do anything (except for Ryobi to pay money to the plaintiff). It does set a precedent for future cases, but it doesn't require anybody to license any particular technology. Other inventors are free to come up with other ways of addressing this safety issue which don't infringe the patent(s) in question ("workarounds"). But, for the meantime, it appears that a need has been identified, and one inventor/company has had the foresight to come up with a solution for that need.

    Again, the "government" is not requiring anybody to do anything. Yes, a precedent has been set, and it can be assumed that future similar cases will look to this one for guidance. However, I think I would characterize it more as the "people" setting this requirement, rather than the "government".

    I suggest this creates incentive for saw manufacturers to put their thinking caps on about how to deal with this safety issue in ways that let them avoid taking a patent license for this particular invention. Meanwhile, this is exactly what the patent system is intended to promote - a creative inventor being the first/best one to address a need in the market and therefore getting to profit from it.


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