ELK GROVE VILLAGE, ILL. — Aoki Technical Laboratory Inc., smelling victory in a court battle with FMT Corp., has found the ``smoking preform,'' Aoki's lawyer said.
If Aoki ends up winning, the Japanese maker of blow molding machines can thank Allan Griff. The Maryland plastics consultant hung on to preforms he picked up at a trade show 23 years ago.
The legal battle began in 1996 in U.S. District Court in Concord, N.H. Officials of FMT, fresh off court settlements from two other companies, offered to sell Aoki a license for $5 million. Aoki considered that a threat and filed a lawsuit against FMT, a machine shop in Londonderry, N.H.
In December 1977, FMT had acquired three patents that cover ways to make flat-bottomed parisons into containers in which the bottom is thinner than the side walls. Before that technology, on flat-bottomed parisons, the bottoms were the same thickness as the side walls.
Both sides say the key legal question seems to be: When did Aoki blow mold the bottles and who knew it?
Aoki claims it had used the technology to blow mold bottles at the 1976 NPE show in Chicago — more than one year before FMT bought the patents. The NPE demonstration amounts to a prior-art claim, said Wayne Smith, Aoki's lawyer.
Smith gave an update of the legal war during a June 25 news conference at Aoki's U.S. headquarters in Elk Grove Village.
Smith said Aoki had some proof it actually displayed the technology at NPE in 1976: mechanical drawings, finished bottles, photographs of the booth with a molding machine. But one missing link remained: Aoki could not prove it actually molded bottles from preforms with the technology at the show.
``The only doubt the court had about our case is what the court calls a lack of direct evidence,'' Smith said.
Enter Griff's preform collection.
Aoki turned up a list of visitors to the booth. Griff's name was on it, with a notation that he had taken some samples. This past April, Aoki tracked Griff down at his firm, Edison Technical Services in Bethesda, Md.
``He's got an amazing archive of stuff that he picked up at trade shows,'' Smith said. ``Some of it dates to the '60s.''
Smith said Griff turned over five of the NPE preforms to Aoki. After the trade show, Griff had marked each one neatly with the company's name and the date.
Smith said Aoki plans to file a motion for a summary judgment, to end the case, in a few weeks.
Contacted after the Aoki news conference, FMT's lawyer, Alfred Breiner, was not impressed. He said FMT has statements from several blow molding industry leaders who say Aoki did not hand out preforms at the 1976 NPE. Even if Aoki did give out a handful of preforms, that doesn't meet the ``public use'' rule that requires a company either to introduce a commercial product with the disputed innovation, or to communicate the news widely, he said.
``I think they're playing with mirrors here. If we thought they had a good case, we would bow out,'' Breiner said.
Griff, a self-described plastics historian, said he keeps about 15 boxes of plastic parts in storage in Bethesda. These days, the 1970s are remembered as the days of disco and mood rings, but to Griff, they marked the early days of PET bottles.
Back then, he wrote a series of industry reports for clients on packaging. The business reports included his coverage of trade shows, patent research and an analysis of current technology.
``[The reports] were done with the obsession that only I have,'' Griff said in a telephone interview.
Griff said he often kept artifacts from trade shows — and much more unusual sources. He collected other early PET preforms and bottles, including a Barex Coke bottle from 1970 that Griff says is the first plastic soda bottle. He said he drove to Massachusetts to pick up a few cases of green contour bottles from a Coke test- marketing site. He has paid people in other countries to buy beer and soda, and ship him the empties.
Smith said Aoki did not pay Griff for the preforms. But the lawyer said Griff will be paid to testify in court about the chain of evidence.
``We'll cover his standard fee, but nothing more,'' Smith said.