Byline: Drew Dixon
Mark Shaw remembers the first time he had to fight to protect his intellectual property.
Shaw, president and co-founder of Jacksonville-based UltraTech International Inc., had a patent on an industrial funnel for loading liquid into 55-gallon drums and then another company copied the design.
"I think my business partner and I laughed. We thought, 'What a bunch of idiots. Did they think we wouldn't defend our patents?' " Shaw said Wednesday. "We couldn't believe someone would be so stupid to literally infringe."
But incredulity quickly gave way to paternalistic instincts. "This wasn't the first time we ever had a patent, but it is your baby," Shaw said. "Any patent you have, it is your idea."
UltraTech took the other company to court, and Shaw said the case went to mediation, ending with a settlement that stopped the other company from making the funnel.
UltraTech isn't the only First Coast company to deal with such a challenge. The legal fights over patented property have increased with the growing number of patents issued nationally.
Perhaps the sharpest example in the Jacksonville area of the role of patents is being played out in a battle between Jacksonville-based ParkerVision Inc. and Qualcomm Inc.
In 2011, ParkerVision filed a lawsuit against Qualcomm in a federal court, arguing Qualcomm infringed on six patents for wireless and mobile communications technologies, in which both companies specialize. Qualcomm has tried to get the suit dismissed, a motion a judge denied in March.
The patents at stake in the suit focus on the conversion of wireless data transmitted through cellphone towers.
Patents have long protected entrepreneurs with a great idea, but the process of getting one can be complicated and sometimes expensive.
In Jacksonville, 172 patents were issued in the past year by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. Some of those patents range from "athletic garment with integrated sports bra" to "wettable hydrogels comprising acyclic polyamides" to a "novelty button," covering the gamut of the super sophisticated to common everyday products.
"Jacksonville is kind of an interesting city in that we do get a lot of individual inventors and very small businesses," said Tom Saitta, a Jacksonville patent attorney for the past 25 years. While Jacksonville does have some emerging technology companies such as Web.com, Saitta said the city is not a hub of corporate research and development like the Silicon Valley area.
Nothing has to be patented, Saitta said, but without it, there's no way to prevent competition and an entrepreneur can't sell or license the idea to others.
From entrepreneurs to corporate executives, said John Calvert, acting associate commissioner at the patent office headquarters in Alexandria, Va., more and more businesses are discovering that patents are becoming a linchpin to their businesses.
"Some people use them to build well," he said. "Others use them from a defensive posture ... and people have really found out that patents really do generate wealth. There's a big entrepreneurial growth in the country right now and patents are part of that growth."
While many patents have individual owners, some companies, such as UltraTech, located off Philips Highway, have a stable of them. The spill containment company has over 50 patents for heavy industrial stormwater, construction and oil spill control products, with another half dozen patents pending review.
Shaw said he's been involved in about a dozen legal scrapes over infringement, with the most contentious fight concerning a drain guard, basically a filter for pollutants going into drainage systems. …