Innovation Fatigue Factor: Zapped by PartnersBy
One of the nine major innovation fatigue factors that we treat in Conquering Innovation Fatigue is theft of the invention, of the IP, or other assets. One of the most painful and most common sources of theft of an invention is from partners such as vendors or customers. One apparent example is the dispute between Woodstream Corp. and Agrizap, Inc., a case that went to district court and then on appeal to the Federal Circuit Court. Again, there are always two sides to these stories, and we encourage people not to judge losers of legal battles too harshly, for truth and justice are not always the product of courts. But the apparent facts of the case, as reported in public documents, illustrate the kind of problems that many inventors face and need to be protected against.
Agrizap, Inc. had developed a rat killer based on electrocution. It was patented in US Pat. No. 5,949,636. Woodstream, the maker of the Victor® brand pest control products, approached and developed a partnership with Agrizap. During negotiations under a non-disclosure agreement, Woodstream sent samples of the Agrizap product to Chinese manufacturers. Agrizap learned of this and challenged their motives, but a vice president of Woodstream assured Woodstream that the action was simply to obtain a price quote for use in negotiation with Agrizap and was permitted under a particular section of the non-disclosure agreement. However, it appears that they were looking for help in making their own product. Woodstream soon licensed the patent from Agrizap to allow Woodstream to sell the product to a limited group of companies such as Home Depot and Lowe’s. Agrizap agreed not to compete in those markets. They provided Woodstream with products, not knowing that Woodstream was working on developing their own version of the same. Within three years of the partnership, they were competing directly with Agrizap with their own version of the product.
Agrizap sued for patent infringement. Unfortunately, during appeal, the Federal Circuit used the recent KSR decision on obviousness to argue that the patent was simply a combination of known elements to achieve a predictable result, and thus invalidated the patent. But Agrizap also sued over fraudulent misrepresentation and won a $1.2 million award in spite of losing their patent. The existence of good documentation about their agreements, including oral aspects of the agreement, proved to be more valuable in the end than the patent itself. (Resource: “. . . Eliminates Pesky Patents Too! Agrizap, Inc. v. Woodstream Corp.,” Advanced Patent Trial Strategies (APaTS®) series, Robins, Kaplan, Miller and Ciresi, LLP, Minneapolis, Minnesota, April 14, 2008.)
In this case, unfortunately, the activities of Woodstream forced Agrizap to sue and thereby put their patent at risk. Had Woodstream been more forthcoming, Agrizap might have been able to license the patent more broadly or continue using it to generate revenue. One can argue that eliminating an invalid patent is a public service, and that may be the case, but the invalidity is painful when it comes from rules that change midstream, adding new uncertainties for patent owners. And in any case, the apparent misrepresentation by Woodstream resulted in substantial loss for Agrizap. It gave Woodstream several years of market penetration before they launched their own product, when it would have been much better for Agrizap–had they known of Woodstream’s intent–to simply enter the market directly and build momentum before Agrizap had time to reverse engineer their product. No one wants to form a partnership with someone who secretly plans to turn around and compete directly against you.
Choose your partners and friends carefully. The ones with poor ethics will usually lead to regret and loss. Make sure you have solid documentation of your agreements and understandings, in addition to strong patents, in order to protect your interests in spite of the uncertainties of law.