American plastic table maker Lifetime Products Inc., which has filed more than 20 patent-infringement lawsuits in the U.S. aimed at blocking Chinese products from U.S. stores, is bringing its first such lawsuit in mainland China to directly target alleged copycats.
Lifetime, which claims to be the world's largest maker of polyethylene folding tables, has sued three Chinese competitors in court in Shanghai, claiming they are violating several of Lifetime's China patents. It is asking the court to order Lifetime's rivals to stop manufacturing those products and pay damages.
Previous court cases Lifetime brought in the United States, its largest market, and in Australia were generally designed to block access to those markets. But as the company seeks to expand its markets worldwide, it is putting more emphasis on global intellectual property protection.
Filing in China allows us to go to the source of the infringing products rather than trying to enforce our IP in all the different locations in which the products are sold, said Tim Schade, legal counsel for Clearfield, Utah-based Lifetime. It also allows us to enforce against the manufacturer, which we aren't always able to do where the product is sold.
Lifetime's complaint is against three firms in Zhejiang province: Zhejiang Bestem Furniture Co. Ltd., Zhejiang Bestem Machinery Co. Ltd. (formerly Hangzhou Dali Tools Packing Co. Ltd.), and Hangzhou Bestem Furniture Co. Ltd.
In May, Lifetime won temporary injunctions in federal court in Nevada against Zhejiang Bestem Furniture and Hangzhou Dali Tools, after it said it discovered products from them at the National Hardware Show in Las Vegas.
Lifetime said the Chinese patents cover some key competitive innovations, including two distinct patents for blow molding the edges and corners of the tables to provide additional strength, and for molding depressions in the entire lower surface to make the tables stronger while requiring less plastic.
Schade said the Chinese litigation, filed in Shanghai No. 1 Intermediate People's Court, is the progression of efforts that started two years ago in China. That's when Lifetime started visiting Canton Fair in Guangzhou to identify and target potential infringers.
In 2009, Lifetime filed complaints with Canton Fair, Asia's largest trade fair, accusing six exhibitors of violating its patents, including the firms in the Shanghai lawsuit, Schade said.
In each of those complaints, the products were found to have infringed on Lifetime's patents, according to Schade. They were removed from display.
We were treated very fairly, Schade said.
Lifetime, which started filing Chinese patents in 2002, has a blow molding plant in Xiamen.
Some of the patents at issue now are newer; one of the core China patents was granted in 2009, he said.
The companies accused in the Shanghai case sell to smaller U.S. retailers and have some significant accounts outside the U.S. that are current, past or potential Lifetime customers, Schade said. However, they do not sell to the company's most significant American accounts, he added.
Lifetime claims its legal actions in the U.S. have helped it protect its home market and focus on international growth. Those earlier U.S. cases also targeted U.S. distributors and retailers.
We feel that our litigation in the U.S. was very successful and we don't see as many infringing products here as we have in the past, Schade said. Because of that, we are able to focus on additional markets like Canada, Australia and China.
Our strategy has always been to enforce our patents as aggressively as possible. The application of that strategy is now extending into markets outside the U.S.
Schade said IP law has a relatively short 30-year history in China, compared with 230 years in the United States, and while training and familiarity with those laws are less advanced, the company believes IP enforcement in China is getting better.
Our research suggests that courts are willing to enforce intellectual property rights, even when the enforcer is a foreign company, and we anticipate that we will be treated fairly, he said.
Copyright 2010 Crain Communications Inc. All Rights Reserved.