by Jennifer Nomura, UMN Law Student, MJLST Staff
When most people think of patents they think of the latest computer technology or advances in medical science; but what about women’s shapewear? For those unaware of what shapewear is, it’s basically the modern version of a corset; it keeps everything pulled in, but (hopefully) more comfortable than a corset. Heather Thomson, founder of Yummie Tummie, has a patent on some of her styles of tank-top shapewear. When she found out that Spanx, a competing company, was making a very similar looking piece of shapewear, Thomson wasn’t happy. Thomson sent a cease-and-desist letter to Sara Blakely, founder of Spanx and then took to social media to complain. Websites like Forbes and the Huffington Post picked up the story. So far, the situation sounds fairly typical of other patent infringement cases, so why all the press coverage? Did I mention that Heather Thomson is a TV star of Bravo’s Real Housewives of New York? Needless to say, Thomson is not afraid of a little drama. Thomson has declared war against Blakely and Spanx. But Sara Blakely is not the underdog in this situation. Blakely founded Spanx in 2000 and is now a self-made billionaire. Blakely has now filed a declaratory judgment action in court alleging that Spanx is not infringing any of Yummie Tummie’s patents.
Spanx has been in the shapewear business 8 years longer than Yummie Tummie and has its own patents, so this might be the case of the “bad patent”. In an article entitled Patent Reform and Differential Impact, published in Issue 8.1 of the Minnesota Journal of Law, Science & Technology, authors Matthew Sag and Kurt Rohde define a “bad patent” as one “that should not have been issued.” But Sag and Rohde want to go further. They argue that the term “bad patent” should also include “a patent that was validly issued but is now the subject of hyper-assertion.” The main concern with bad patents is that they “are capable of generating significant revenues and thus have a distorting effect on the allocation of resources in the economy.” This can happen where once a patentee sends a cease-and-desist letter, even if the patent qualifies as a “bad patent,” the alleged infringer will immediately license with the patentee. Or it could be that the parties could take their dispute to court, like Spanx and Yummie Tummie. Now there will be an expenditure of money on both sides trying to settle this issue in court. There is also a drain on public resources as the conflict has to make its way through the court system. Sag and Rohde make several proposed reforms in order to remedy the problem of bad patents. One of their proposed reforms to the litigation process is by fee-shifting. Fee-shifting would require the patentee to pay the costs of litigation if the patent was invalidated based on easily-discoverable prior art. This proposed reform could push potential patent applicants to perform a more comprehensive search through current patents before submitting their application to the PTO. Fee-shifting could prevent bad patents from being issued in the first place, or at least making patentees think twice before they try to enforce their patent against an alleged infringer.
While the public’s interest in the dispute between Yummie Tummie and Spanx has more to do with the reputations of both founders, this situation could revive a push for reform to the patent litigation system. Perhaps there will be a revival of the interest to limit or eliminate “bad patents.”