On September 21st, Saint Paul, MN-based technology and materials company 3M (NYSE:MMM) filed a lawsuit alleging patent and trademark infringement committed by Shanghai, China-based Thunder Finish. The lawsuit targets Thunder Finish’s marketing of paint preparation products developed by 3M which are meant to simplify the use and cleanup of liquid paint spray guns. The suit is filed in the Western District of Wisconsin.
In the lawsuit, 3M is asserting a registered trademark and an issued patent, both of which cover the Paint Preparation System (PPS) which it markets for sale. According to 3M, PPS eliminates the need for traditional mixing cups and paint strainers by providing a liner for mixing which can be adapted for use with most spray guns. The sale of 3M’s painting system under the PPS mark is covered by U.S. Trademark Registration No. 4156991. The ‘991 trademark covers the use of the standard character mark “PPS” on paint spray equipment including spray gun adapters, cups and collars, lids and liners, mix ratio inserts and cup carriers for the preparation of paints. 3M also asserts its rights to U.S. Trademark Registration No. 2861036 which also covers the use of the standard character mark “PPS” on spray guns comprising cups and liners for mixing and dispensing liquids.
3M is also asserting a single patent in the case against Thunder Finish: U.S. Patent No. 9211553, titled Apparatus for Spraying Liquids, and Adapters and Liquid Reservoirs Suitable for Use Therewith. Issued in December 2015, the patent discloses a spray gun paint reservoir having a self-supporting liner with a base, a sidewall, an open end with a rim and an internal surface, the liner being collapsible as paint is withdrawn from the reservoir; the claimed reservoir also has a lid which can be push-fit into the open end of the liner and has an outwardly-extending rim and a central aperture containing an extendable connector tube which connects the reservoir to a compatible spray gun. The resulting invention provides a paint reservoir for spray guns which enables easier cleanup, reducing the amount of solvent needed for cleaning, while reducing the risk that spray gun paint will be contaminated by previous paint batches used in the gun.
As 3M’s complaint notes, the company identified a need for developing more efficient and less time-consuming methods for paint mixing, filtering and spray gun loading processes back in 1995. Convention gravity-fed spray guns of the time used paint containers screwed into the gun’s top with the use of a threaded connector. Once a painter had finished using one paint mixture in the gun, a large amount of solvent would need to be used to clean residual paint from both the gun and the container in order to prevent contamination. The PPS product developed by 3M reduced the costs, time and minimized the cleaning associated with spray gun painting. The disposable, collapsible liner of the PPS product allowed painters to prepare paints directly in a liner which was easily disposable after use.
3M’s allegations of infringement target the online sales of a product marketed by Thunder Finish as a “paint preparation system.” 3M also identifies a sales manager for Thunder Finish who has sent emails to potential customers across the United States. One of the emails from this sales manager discusses a “special offer” price for PPS from Thunder Finish, further noting that Thunder Finish specializes in the automotive refinish industry; 3M’s suit notes that the company had invested significant resources in sending employees to collision repair centers around the country to teach the PPS process and to communicate its benefits.
Paints and coatings make up just more than one-fifth of the entire automotive collision repair market in 2016 according to a market report by Global Market Insights. Sales of paint and coating products were expected to grow in part due to increased traffic in urban areas leading to a higher risk of minor dents and small crashes. The report identifies 3M as a company looking to increase its market share in this sector through new product offerings like a new line of cutting and pneumatic tools announced this January.