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VALLEY BUSINESS | VALLEY@WORK

Curtain Battle Hardly an Open-and-Shut Case

February 02, 1999|KAREN ROBINSON-JACOBS

Douglas Domel, a Chatsworth-based inventor and designer, is trying to pull back the curtain on some supposedly shady dealings in the veiled world of window coverings.

In a pair of lawsuits, one of which has worked its way up to the U.S. Supreme Court, Domel alleges that a curtain-pulling product he designed has been illegally co-opted by Hunter Douglas, one of the biggest names in the $800-million window-covering industry. In some circles imitation may be flattery, but in this case the actions allegedly violate a passel of patents that Domel says he has on the design.

At stake is the right to produce and sell a small motorized device that opens and closes mini-blinds and shades by remote control, or on a sun-sensor or timer.

Like the device itself, the company behind the suit is compact. Harmonic Design, 6 years old with 10 employees, is typical of the scores of small manufacturing firms that make up the heart of industrial Chatsworth.

But attorneys and experts in patent law say the growing legal field involves some big numbers these days, both in terms of the tally of patent infringement lawsuits being filed and the dollars at stake.

Brigid Quinn of the U.S. Patent and Trademark office said the number of patents issued has increased by nearly 45%, to 155,000, since 1993, fueled largely by growth in technology and bio-med fields. In that same time period, the number of patent-related lawsuits filed in federal courts nationwide, most of them alleging patent infringement, has grown by nearly 60% to 1,635.

As so-called intellectual property becomes an ever more valuable asset in today's high-tech society, more companies, even tiny ones, are going forth to do battle to protect those patents.

"The number of [lawsuit] filings is definitely up," said Charles Barquist, who has handled patent infringement lawsuits for Morrison & Foerster in Los Angeles for about eight years.

"The trend in the U.S. economy is away from bricks and mortar and more to intellectual property rather than physical property. That's where the big battles are being fought today.

"And the patents are so valuable," he added, "that if you do win, the damages are often extraordinary."

In some high-profile cases, damages have run more than $1 billion.

In this case, the road to court began in the bathtub.

Domel, 41, of Santa Clarita, was living in a rented house in Chatsworth in the early 1990s. The home had 20 sets of mini-blinds, including four that surrounded a sunken bathtub.

"Each morning I would get up and go around the house and open the mini-blinds," said Domel, who used to design products for Hewlett Packard. "I'd have to step into the [dry] tub, open the blinds and step out. Each night I did the opposite."

After several months, Domel said, the routine began to get old and he decided that automation was the key.

Unable to find a suitable solution--existing products would have cost more than $300 per window and required use of standard house current, which Domel deemed inappropriate for the bathroom--the inventor set out to do it himself.

"I wrote down the specs for the perfect product for me and from that we created this product," he said.

Unlike existing products, Domel said his device runs on regular AA batteries that can last, depending on usage, up to three years.

Domel filed for patent protection for the product in 1993. In December 1997 and February 1998, patents were issued covering the inner workings of the device.

In 1995, Domel entered into licensing talks with both Hunter Douglas and Springs Industries of Middleton, Wis. The license was awarded to Springs in September 1995.

In a lawsuit filed last September in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles, Harmonic Design alleged that Hunter Douglas "systematically used and copied Harmonic Design's patented motorized system technology" and sold the device as its own.

James Dabney, an attorney for New Jersey-based Hunter Douglas, denies that the industry leader pirated Harmonic's design, adding that the claims are without merit.

"Hunter Douglas has its own patent on its own product," he said. "It works in an entirely different way than the Harmonic product.

"The products are fundamentally different."

Dabney said that in 1996, Hunter Douglas filed suit alleging that Harmonic had "procured invalid patents" to preclude Hunter Douglas and others from entering the market.

Through a number of legal twists and turns, that case has worked its way up to the U.S. Supreme Court, which is being asked to weigh in on the question of whether state tort laws can be used to invalidate federal patents, as Hunter Douglas is trying to do to Harmonic.

Meanwhile, the actual patent infringement cases continue in federal court here.

The cost of funding the two suits could top $1 million, said Eric Hauck, Harmonic's chief operations officer.

"And that's a lot for us," said Hauck, who built water theme parks in his former life. "We're a little company."

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