A fortune in his coffee cup?

by Walter Olson on June 30, 2009

Annals of bounty-hunting: “A recent ruling on an obscure, century-old statute has opened the door for people familiar with the finer points of patent law to sue companies that stamp their products with expired patent numbers.” Washington, D.C. patent attorney Matthew Pequignot “noticed the patent marks on the lid to his daily cup of coffee, did some research and found that the lid’s maker, Solo Cup Co., was continuing to claim patent protections for disposable lids that had expired nearly 20 years ago.” So he’s sued Solo and E.D. Va. federal judge Leonie Brinkema has allowed his case to go forward, ruling that the requisite harm to the government is satisfied because the government’s laws against “false markings” were violated. (A federal judge in New York, however, ruled differently on the harm-to-government issue in a recent case with similar facts.) Pequignot has offered to settle the Solo suit for $9 million and has sued Gillette on similar theories; the bounty-hunting law allows claimants to keep half of the recovery.

Pequignot, for his part, says he does not expect an avalanche of false markings lawsuits, despite the fact that [attorney Raymond] Stauffer and some others have already followed in his footsteps. He said that, even as a patent attorney, it took him many hours of research to be able to file his lawsuit.

[AP/Fort Wayne Journal Gazette via ABA Journal; Sheri Qualters, NLJ]

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“Judge closes door on legal quirk in patent law”
07.11.09 at 12:50 am

{ 6 comments }

1 John Burgess 06.30.09 at 10:47 am

Nine million dollars for ‘a few hours work’ sounds fascinating.

I guess I made a wrong career choice somewhere down the line.

2 Doug 06.30.09 at 1:43 pm

This is what happens when private citizens are allowed to be private attorney’s generals.

3 Bryan C 06.30.09 at 4:09 pm

How is a patent number a “false marking”, exactly? The patent marks I’m familiar with simply state that a patent is on file, which seems to be true in this case. That number gives anyone interested an easy way to discover all of the details that are required to be public, including whether or not the patent has expired. Patent numbers can be interesting. (Yeah, I know. I’m one of those weird people who also look up FCC ID numbers, USGS markers, and fruit-label codes.)

4 Dirk D 06.30.09 at 10:14 pm

“How is a patent number a “false marking”, exactly?”

Putting a patent number on the product can be and is likely to be construed as claiming that the product is protected by a patent. Once the patent is expired, claiming patent protection is misleading. A hundred years ago researching patents was difficult to say the least, thus having a claim against parties that would mislead competitors as to the nature of patent protection for a product made sense. That said, they should close this loop hole. There is no reason for consumers to police this.

5 ps 07.01.09 at 1:38 am

$9 million for many hours work doesn’t sound like a bad deal. I don’t make near that for many decades of work. Unless, of course, the concept of “work” is what has Pequignot stymied.

6 Joe Markowitz 07.09.09 at 3:06 pm

Of course, anybody can ask for any dollar amount in the complaint, but the amount prayed for or the amount demanded in settlement does not bind the judge or the jury. All it has is PR value. Let’s wait and see what a court actually awards for a case such as this one, before we start jumping to conclusions about whether anybody has recovered millions for a few hours of work. Let’s also remember that his case is brought on behalf of the government, so we all benefit from any recovery. The only interest the lawyer has is the share of the award that the court and the statute may allow him.

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