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Indiana inventors tell Maurer students about challenging big business in federal court

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Speaking recently to a group of students at Indiana University Maurer School of Law, Lebanon inventor Larry Durkos and his son, Duane, told their story of battling the biggest giant in the bedding industry and winning.

The pair filed a patent infringement lawsuit against Missouri-based Leggett & Platt over a stapling machine invented by Larry Durkos. Their success hinged on two key elements: Durkos had the skill to write solid patents, and they had the luck of finding a law firm willing to take the case on contingency.

mattress-ibj-062413-15col.jpg Duane Durkos (left) and his father, Larry, put their business venture on hold and gave money back to investors while they pursued a patent infringement lawsuit against an industry giant. (IBJ File Photo)

“The process is good,” Durkos said, referring to the patent system. “In our case, it saved our lives. If we hadn’t had the patent, we would have been stepped on by Leggett & Platt and been a little grease spot in Boone County.”

Introducing the pair to the students, Mark Janis, director of the Center for Intellectual Property Research at Maurer, said the Durkoses’ story illustrates the way the patent system is supposed to work. When an inventor puts money and sweat behind a product and a company tries to rip off the idea, the patent provides protection.

“It really does show you,” Janis told the students, “how the work you do can make a difference.”

Writing the patents

The elder Durkos got the idea for the stapling machine while he and his wife were touring a bedding factory. When he saw the workers attaching the springs to the wood by hand, he immediately envisioned an automated device.

This is typical for Durkos. He described himself as right-brained and often having pictures of new inventions pop into his mind.

“That has been my whole life,” he said. “I have created things that people like.”

The first patent, from Durkos’ company Imaginal Systematic LLC, was issued for a stapler that was quite sophisticated and included a camera and trainable software. The stapler head would maneuver down through the twisted, zigzag-shaped wire springs and punch the staple into the targeted spot.

A short time later, Durkos noticed the box-spring market was changing. Bedding companies were trending toward the Leggett & Platt wire framework that straightened out the springs and molded them into a more angular configuration.

He realized he had to redesign the staple machine and secure new patents. The next device was actually less sophisticated than the original. Instead of a camera that could rotate, Durkos designed mechanical guides that gripped the wire and moved the stapler head into the proper location.

That guidance mechanism won the patent infringement case. As Imaginal Systematic’s attorney explained to the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals, without that component the entire machine would be worthless because the stapler would not be able to get into the right position.

When the time came to file the patents, Durkos picked up the phone and called his son’s former high school classmate, Tim Niednagel, partner at Faegre Baker Daniels LLP. After all, Durkos was the one who told Niednagel to become a patent attorney.

In the mid-1980s, Durkos was demonstrating his newest invention of a small, portable computer that was much like the laptops which came to market later. He invited Niednagel, then a senior electrical engineering major at Purdue University, to the presentation and afterward advised the young man to go into law.

Writing the patent application is a collaborative process between Durkos and Niednagel. The inventor researches and writes very detailed narratives while the attorney reviews the drafts and suggests revisions.

The day-to-day work would be “a lot more rewarding if there were a lot more clients like Larry,” Niednagel said.

Ironically, Durkos and his son approached Leggett & Platt just as they started work on the first stapling machine in the mid-1990s, asking if the company wanted to be a partner. The bed maker flatly replied it was impossible to invent such a device.

However, when the Durkoses unveiled the equipment at a trade show in 2002, Duane Durkos told the Maurer students, groups of Leggett & Platt representatives constantly walked around the display.

Later, the pair was in a factory in West Virginia and they saw Leggett & Platt’s new stapling machine that looked and functioned a lot like the one Larry Durkos had invented and patented.

Fighting the infringement

At that time, the patents on the second machine had not been issued and, Duane Durkos acknowledged, they were uncertain if Leggett & Platt was infringing. However, he started searching the Internet for a patent litigator.

When he stumbled across Electronics for Imaging Inc., a company that had won a patent lawsuit against Leggett & Platt, he called the general counsel and got the name of the attorney who represented EFI.

Eventually, Steve Hanle, partner at Sheppard Mullin Richter & Hampton LLP, took Imaginal Systematic as a client.

Very few patent infringement lawsuits go to court, according to Don Knebel, partner at Barnes & Thornburg LLP and senior adviser to the Center for Intellectual Property Research at IU Maurer. To litigate a patent dispute, each side must have at least $2 million to cover expenses and have attorneys who can explain complicated technology in terms that the average juror can understand.

Larry and Duane Durkos likely would not have had the funds to take the case to court. When they approached their investors for $250,000 to cover attorney fees, they raised $5,000.

However, they were saved when the law firm agreed to litigate the dispute on contingency. Sheppard Mullin saw the potential to be able to recoup its expenses from the royalties that would flow to Imaginal Systematic for the remaining nine years of the patents.

“It is typical that a couple of guys from Boone County will not be able to file a patent case because they won’t have the money to pay,” Larry Durkos said.

The case moved to court and in January 2012, the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California found Leggett & Platt was, indeed, infringing on the patents of Imaginal Systematic.

A jury was then convened to determine the damages. Larry and Duane Durkos had to fly to Los Angeles and testify during the weeklong hearing.

They followed their attorney’s instruction and put on coats and ties for their court appearances. Knebel said that as a trial strategy, he would probably have kept the pair from wearing ties. He said less-formal dress would have shown the jury they are inventors and possibly convinced the jury to increase the damage amount.

In the end, the jury awarded $5 million to Imaginal Systematic.

With the decision upheld on appeal, the District judge is now determining the royalties. These ongoing payments will come not from the number of machines sold but rather from the savings realized per box spring by using the automated staplers.

Since Leggett & Platt has been willfully infringing since the January 2012 ruling, the judge now has the option of enhancing whatever the royalty amount will be.

Doing some figuring on a spreadsheet, Larry Durkos calculated the savings over the life of the patents would top $100 million.

So much for being a grease spot in Boone County.•

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  1. I like the concept. Seems like a good idea and really inexpensive to manage.

  2. I don't agree that this is an extreme case. There are more of these people than you realize - people that are vindictive and/or with psychological issues have clogged the system with baseless suits that are costly to the defendant and to taxpayers. Restricting repeat offenders from further abusing the system is not akin to restricting their freedon, but to protecting their victims, and the court system, from allowing them unfettered access. From the Supreme Court opinion "he has burdened the opposing party and the courts of this state at every level with massive, confusing, disorganized, defective, repetitive, and often meritless filings."

  3. So, if you cry wolf one too many times courts may "restrict" your ability to pursue legal action? Also, why is document production equated with wealth? Anyone can "produce probably tens of thousands of pages of filings" if they have a public library card. I understand this is an extreme case, but our Supreme Court really got this one wrong.

  4. He called our nation a nation of cowards because we didn't want to talk about race. That was a cheap shot coming from the top cop. The man who decides who gets the federal government indicts. Wow. Not a gentleman if that is the measure. More importantly, this insult delivered as we all understand, to white people-- without him or anybody needing to explain that is precisely what he meant-- but this is an insult to timid white persons who fear the government and don't want to say anything about race for fear of being accused a racist. With all the legal heat that can come down on somebody if they say something which can be construed by a prosecutor like Mr Holder as racist, is it any wonder white people-- that's who he meant obviously-- is there any surprise that white people don't want to talk about race? And as lawyers we have even less freedom lest our remarks be considered violations of the rules. Mr Holder also demonstrated his bias by publically visiting with the family of the young man who was killed by a police offering in the line of duty, which was a very strong indicator of bias agains the offer who is under investigation, and was a failure to lead properly by letting his investigators do their job without him predetermining the proper outcome. He also has potentially biased the jury pool. All in all this worsens race relations by feeding into the perception shared by whites as well as blacks that justice will not be impartial. I will say this much, I do not blame Obama for all of HOlder's missteps. Obama has done a lot of things to stay above the fray and try and be a leader for all Americans. Maybe he should have reigned Holder in some but Obama's got his hands full with other problelms. Oh did I mention HOlder is a bank crony who will probably get a job in a silkstocking law firm working for millions of bucks a year defending bankers whom he didn't have the integrity or courage to hold to account for their acts of fraud on the United States, other financial institutions, and the people. His tenure will be regarded by history as a failure of leadership at one of the most important jobs in our nation. Finally and most importantly besides him insulting the public and letting off the big financial cheats, he has been at the forefront of over-prosecuting the secrecy laws to punish whistleblowers and chill free speech. What has Holder done to vindicate the rights of privacy of the American public against the illegal snooping of the NSA? He could have charged NSA personnel with violations of law for their warrantless wiretapping which has been done millions of times and instead he did not persecute a single soul. That is a defalcation of historical proportions and it signals to the public that the government DOJ under him was not willing to do a damn thing to protect the public against the rapid growth of the illegal surveillance state. Who else could have done this? Nobody. And for that omission Obama deserves the blame too. Here were are sliding into a police state and Eric Holder made it go all the faster.

  5. JOE CLAYPOOL candidate for Superior Court in Harrison County - Indiana This candidate is misleading voters to think he is a Judge by putting Elect Judge Joe Claypool on his campaign literature. paragraphs 2 and 9 below clearly indicate this injustice to voting public to gain employment. What can we do? Indiana Code - Section 35-43-5-3: Deception (a) A person who: (1) being an officer, manager, or other person participating in the direction of a credit institution, knowingly or intentionally receives or permits the receipt of a deposit or other investment, knowing that the institution is insolvent; (2) knowingly or intentionally makes a false or misleading written statement with intent to obtain property, employment, or an educational opportunity; (3) misapplies entrusted property, property of a governmental entity, or property of a credit institution in a manner that the person knows is unlawful or that the person knows involves substantial risk of loss or detriment to either the owner of the property or to a person for whose benefit the property was entrusted; (4) knowingly or intentionally, in the regular course of business, either: (A) uses or possesses for use a false weight or measure or other device for falsely determining or recording the quality or quantity of any commodity; or (B) sells, offers, or displays for sale or delivers less than the represented quality or quantity of any commodity; (5) with intent to defraud another person furnishing electricity, gas, water, telecommunication, or any other utility service, avoids a lawful charge for that service by scheme or device or by tampering with facilities or equipment of the person furnishing the service; (6) with intent to defraud, misrepresents the identity of the person or another person or the identity or quality of property; (7) with intent to defraud an owner of a coin machine, deposits a slug in that machine; (8) with intent to enable the person or another person to deposit a slug in a coin machine, makes, possesses, or disposes of a slug; (9) disseminates to the public an advertisement that the person knows is false, misleading, or deceptive, with intent to promote the purchase or sale of property or the acceptance of employment;

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