Monday, 20 December 2010

Flash of Genius

By now any regular readers will know that I applaud anyone who pursues their dreams as long as in doing so they do not knowingly harm others. This is not always easy because the singled minded individual will. however unintentionally, adversely affect parents and other family members, partners and children, unless they are successful in their endeavours. The definition of success is also variable. Someone my go off and climb mountains but in doing bring tension to those waiting to know if their child or partner will return often such endeavours require considerable financial as well as emotional support.

The Flash of Genius is the name of a film but also a doctrine where for ten years the Courts in the USA judged the protection of patents. The film concerns Robert Kearns who successfully fought a battle against the Ford Motor Company to obtain financial recognition for his device, the variable screen wiper.

Robert Kearns was a remarkable man in every sense who successfully studied engineering at Universities in the USA and became a teacher. He was a talented violinist and during the Second World War he was a member of the Office of Strategic Services which became the CIA.

He was nearly blind in one eye, caused on his wedding night when a released champagne cork hit the eye and he suffered difficulties throughout his life as a consequence. Driving with his family in the rain he found the constant back and forth of the screen wipers irritating and his flash of genius was to work out a mechanism which enabled the wipers to operate intermittently. He used this story in court to illustrate his claim for originality. He developed a prototype in the basement of his home where he lived with his wife and then six children.

The device was shown to the Ford Motor Company who agreed to incorporate the mechanism into a new model with Kearns and his partner setting up a manufacturing company to produce the wiper mechanism directly. The deal went as far as submitting a sample unit and pricing information but then silence. He then discovered that the same device was being used in a new model without any reference to him.

The film suggests that he became so distraught about what happened that he required psychiatric help arranged officially by his family. He comes home a broken man but decides to study the legal position and commences action against the company. He is then given legal help and Ford agrees to make a settlement of $30 million which would have set himself and his family up for life, given that other companies wishing to use the device would be required to make payments. He rejected the offer because of the requirement for the out of court settlement to agree on the basis that Ford did not admit liability, which is the usual way civil compensation claims are settled on both sides of the Atlantic.

For Kearns being cheated and unfair commercial practice became the fundamental issue rather than the money and according to the film he decided to continue on his own. Although he maintained contact with his children who came to support him in the preparation of the case and in attending the eventual court hearings, his wife commenced to live life separate from him and divorced.

He won the legal battle although the Court ruled that the infringement had not been intentional with an award of only $10 million on the basis of no appeal regarding the amount. He later successfully won a case against the Chrysler Corporation for $18.7 million with interest but Chrysler appealed until the Supreme Court rejected the request and he received $30 million but out of which he met $10 million of the legal costs.

To place his D I Y legal success in perspective, he commenced the project development in 1966 and the formal legal action in 1978 and 1982 but the trial did not take place until 1990 with the Chrysler initial decision in 1990 and a further five years before settlement. Thus the ordeal for himself and his family took two decades. He failed in cases against General Motors, Mercedes and Japanese companies because of missed deadlines. The film does bring out the basis for the defence of the auto industry in that the device does not use new components. Kearns counteracted this by using the example of a well known book when on the first and subsequent pages all the words are familiar and already contained in the dictionary. The success of the work regarded as a literary masterpiece is in how the author places the words and similarly the argument that while he used existing mechanical and electrical components it is how they are arranged that produces the new type of wiper which he had properly and effectively patented before being used by the motor vehicle manufacturing companies. He died in 2005 from a form of Alzheimer’s disease at the age of 75 having served on a number of charities including the board of the Veterans in the Office of Strategic Services

I agree with one reviewer, Stephen Holden of the New York Times that the film lacked greatness although it contains the mixture of idealism, obsession and paranoia because it somehow misses out in communication the emotional and psychological impact of his quest on him and his family. On reflection this is perhaps unfair because as another reviewer mentions Peter Hartlub in the San Francisco Chronicle, the film does use 2 hours to communicate the struggle and failure before the final moments of success of a kind. I thought this was a good construction in the sense of posing the question was it really worth it? However this is not general entertainment and will appeal only to those like me who have gone through a similar experience. It is also noteworthy that although the film uses the legal doctrine a Flash of Genius, this was altered in 1952 before Kearns commenced his law suits and while he used what happened when driving the car in the rain to indicate the first flash of genius, he subsequently confirmed that the it was several years of a trial and error research before the device was perfected.

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