Powerful interests have been constantly pushing for patent reform for at least the last 10 years, both in the Courts and in the Halls of Congress. Little by little over the past 10 years rights have been stripped away from innovators, thereby making patents weaker and less appealing. At the same time those forces that would prefer a weaker patent system engage in misrepresentation, sometimes so severely misrepresenting reality that one has to wonder whether there is malice involved.
The never ending public relations campaign by patent infringers has turned public sentiment, and many Members of Congress, against innovators. Indeed, anyone who owns a patent and has the audacity to try and enforce the rights granted to them by the Federal Government is vilified as a patent troll. The imagery of a troll ready to jump out from under a bridge to attack poor defenseless multinational, multi-billion dollar a years companies has captured the imagination and turned the public against the true underdogs — inventors.
I recently learned of a gentleman by the name of Fred Sawyer. I interviewed Sawyer on Monday, March 9, 2015, and the transcript of our conversation appears below.
By any reasonable definition Sawyer is a true American hero. He served our country for many years, received numerous medals, and eventually retired as a full colonel. Sawyer is also an inventor, and he is no doubt an inventor a great renown even if you haven’t ever heard his name before. Sawyer played an integral role in the development of the strategic missile defense system, which is more commonly known as Star Wars.
After leaving the military Sawyer, an inventor at heart, continued to invent. He holds a respectable patent portfolio in the RFID space, and as you might expect his patents are in at least some ways fundamental, which means there is ongoing infringement. Sadly, despite the fact that Sawyer is a true gentleman and a real American hero there are many that characterize him as a patent troll, which seems to be a truly ridiculous characterization.
As you will see below, Sawyer explains that he just wants to license the innovations he created for a reasonable price. He has bet everything he has on his innovations, investing his life savings and inheritance too, and the companies that are infringing won’t even talk to him unless he first sues them. This is the reality for inventors and small businesses, one that surprisingly is not told in the popular press.
Before you are ready to buy into the myth about poor defenseless multinational, multi-billion dollar companies that claim they are being bullied by innovators you really need to read the interview below. What actually transpires in industries bears little or no relationship to what is alleged in carefully crafted PR campaigns. So, without further ado, here is my interview with Fred Sawyer.
QUINN: Thank, Fred, for taking the time to chat with me today I really appreciate it. You are an inventor with patents yourself and you have had a long career as an inventor so I thought maybe we could have a conversation about the path you took to becoming an inventor, getting involved in startup operations and the trials and tribulations you have experienced with respect to trying to license your innovations. Where did your journey as an inventor begin?
SAWYER: First Gene, let me thank you for taking your valuable time to talk with me. It started in Norfolk, Virginia where I was raised. I attended Booker T. Washington High School in Norfolk and thereafter attended Virginia State University on a football scholarship, where I majored in physics. This was quite a combination, don’t you think?
SAWYER: Virginia State is classified as a HBCU. I was a pretty good football player at Virginia State, and I was inducted into the Virginia State University Sports’ Hall of Fame and also the Hampton Roads African-American Sports’ Hall of Fame in Tidewater. By the way, I was a late draft pick of the old Chicago Cardinals football team, now the Arizona Cardinals of the NFL. And I was invited to their training camp. However, having been a ROTC cadet in college, I was ordered to active duty in the Army and sent off to Vietnam. Now, I am a retired Army full Colonel. I was an Airborne/Ranger, having served two combat tours in Vietnam and having served in the 82nd Airborne Division and 18th Airborne Corps. So I am a decorated veteran. I was awarded the Legion of Merit, which is one of the highest military awards, and a host of bronze stars. And more importantly I worked on the United States “Star Wars” program that helped dismantle the old Soviet empire in the 1980s.
I had some great jobs while in the military, and I worked with some well-known people. I served as chief of staff for the “Star Wars” Missile Defense Program Office where I got a great deal of ballistic missile training. I worked in the same office at the Pentagon with Colonel Wesley Clark. The same Wesley Clark who later became a four-star general as Supreme NATO Commander. I also had the opportunity to meet and work with General Colin Powell on several occasions. I was a military assistant in the Office of the Secretary of the Army, and I was detailed as a military action officer in the Reagan’s White House. Lastly, I am a graduate of the Industrial College of the Armed Forces, one of the military’s most senior service schools. My educational background includes three master’s degrees and a Ph.D., with concentrations primarily in electrical engineering and queuing theory.
QUINN: So when during this career did you embark on becoming a private sector inventor?
SAWYER: After leaving the military, I worked as a program manager and senior engineer with GE Aerospace in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania. During the late 1980s, I helped develop an advanced inertial navigation system for the Cruise Missile and other missile programs. This was important work that led my invention, and I will tell you why in a few minutes. My inertial navigation expertise led to other opportunities when I started my own engineering firm. And during the early 1990s, my first opportunities with my new engineering firm was as a program manager and technical director. I designed, engineered, and implemented some large radar and communications sites throughout the Caribbean in our country’s war against drugs.
Around 1995, because of my inertial navigation experience, I was awarded a contract with the U.S. Department of Transportation to track trains, especially in tunnels, using radio frequency transponders and inertial navigation technology. During the course of this work, I recognized the vast potential of radio frequency identification, now called RFID, to also track objects and people in real time. This was my inspiration to build something new and exciting. So around 1999, I began to concentrate solely on RFID.
Very briefly, RFID is the use of radio waves to read and capture information that is stored on a transponder or a tag which is in turn attached to an object or a person. I believe that RFID will eventually replace bar coding because RFID can be used at much greater distances, and it has no line-of-sight limitations. So to carry on, during the early days of RFID, when I devoted my attention to RFID at the turn of the century, the major players in RFID were concerned with proprietary reader-tag protocols in order to collect data; namely to get the protocols working and to get longer read ranges between the reader and tags. The readers at that time were dumb readers. And they could only read tags, nothing else. So my focus was on attaching some intelligence to each tag as tags were being read by the hundreds or by the thousands in near-real time. I just wanted to create some technologies for RFID utility applications.
I conceived and started to reduce to practice a physical embodiment of my invention in 1999. My prototype was fully operational in July, I think, of 2001 and I filed a provisional patent that contained a fair amount of technical disclosure in July of 2002. I was granted my first patent in August 2005. In developing my patents in RFID I brought to bear bits and pieces from most of my training, education and experiences over the years. Some of our patents provide for an infrastructure of readers, transponders, antennas, processors, communications, and supporting equipment throughout a facility or open area and the processes for generating low-level actionable event data from raw tag data for identifying, tracking, locating, and surveillance of tagged objects and people in near-real time.
QUINN: By what you have described to me, it sounds like you are a war hero that has been an incredibly successful inventor in the private sector. It does not sound like you are a scary person, or the type of person one might find living under a bridge and ready to jump out at somebody. Yet in many places you are considered a troll, a patent troll. How does that happen? How does somebody like yourself go from all you have done for our country to being so vilified in the media and with many people believing that you are just a greedy troll that does not deserve anything? Once upon a time inventors were celebrated and it just seems like we have gone so far astray.
SAWYER: Yes, you are right about that and that is a shame. I do not consider myself as a patent troll. We are not a patent bully. We would just like to license our inventions straight up just like IBM and the other folks. As I stated before I have nine patents and two foreign patents. I have another patent pending. I believe we have a portfolio of quality patents which are based on my RFID prototype. I won a major RFID contract with the Army in 2005 and I have been involved with RFID technology for over 15 years. I spent my life savings, family inheritance in developing and patenting the technology and also in attempting to commercialize the technology.
QUINN: Tell us about your attempts to commercialize and what challenges you have faced.
SAWYER: I think RFID applications are unlimited. It is used in healthcare; for example, in hospitals they are using RFID to locate and track equipment, patients and staff. The DOD is using RFID to locate and track equipment and supplies. On the commercial side, RFID is used for logistics and supply chain visibility in warehouses and distribution centers. And in retail, RFID is rapidly replacing bar coding providing for real-time item-level inventory tracking. Even Disney is using RFID for access of guests to different venues in its theme parks.
So in 2005, I was one of the first to win a passive RFID contract with the Department of Defense. This contract was with the Army, which was the DOD’s executive agent for RFID at the time. My RFID technology, as reflected in my prototype at that point, was much farther along than that of my competitors like Lockheed-Martin and IBM. In fact, my prototype was instrumental in award of the DOD contract. However, as has happened all the time in the service, rivalries and politics amongst the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps prevented this RFID work from moving forward at the time. And this was painful for me. I had to lay off my staff, repay a bank loan with my personal savings, and this great opportunity slipped away from me and prevented me from commercializing my prototype at the time. After all of this, my personal funds were almost depleted.
The environment for us was sort of grim in 2006. And at that point I wanted to try and expand the use of RFID technology. I tried to license my technology early on to other firms. In most cases I was ignored. I transported and demonstrated my prototype to firms and potential investors in New York City, Michigan and Arizona but with no luck. So hence I knew that I needed some help in order to take advantage of my patent.
So in 2007, Adam Malamut and two others joined me to form a new company called ATS, LLC. Adam brought new life into the company. He was very ambitious and he could get things done. The purpose of this new firm was to license our technology. As time went on, when we attended RFID conferences and exhibits, we began to observe large companies actually using the technology that is taught and claimed in our patents. Here is a typical scenario that we faced in trying to license our technology. Around 2009 we were dealing with a large company in Atlanta in an attempt to license our technology. We made several trips to Atlanta to negotiate with the company over a period of more than six months. In the end that company told us that they were going to take the offer of a larger company that would indemnify them and protect them from claims of patent infringement. For us, this scenario would repeat itself again and again with other companies. We felt that much larger companies were using our technology, making money, and running roughshod over us. So our intention was to promote the adoption of RFID. However, after exhausting our resources and being turned away in favor of big companies that were using our technology, our choices were to pack it in or enforce our patents through litigation.
QUINN: Yes, and that is one of the things that a lot of people do not understand. I think in part, it is because companies do a good job of trying to hide that reality. As you know their lobbyist will often say, “if only we had the opportunity to talk to these people we would, but we get sued without warning.” In fact, what is really going on is their attorneys just will outright refuse to talk to you unless you sue them first. It is a very difficult place to be for an innovator who is just looking for a reasonable royalty for what they have created.
SAWYER: Absolutely. And this has happened over and over again for us.
QUINN: So if you had an opportunity to chat with a member of Congress who might be considering the Innovation Act in the House, for example, what would you like to share with them?
SAWYER: Well, compared to large companies, the independent inventor is already at a disadvantage. As has happened in my case, the large companies can steal your patented technology, make a great deal of money, ignore you all together, and then have the resources, the vast resources in most cases, to delay your enforcement actions or actually destroy your patents by any means necessary. So the only recourse left for me and others like me is to bring suite to protect my invention – my intellectual property rights. However, the loser pay clause in HR 9 would be a showstopper for me. Bringing a suit against a patent infringer would be too much of a risk for me and my family now and I’ve already used my life savings and family inheritance and hard work for over 15 years plus the untold impact on my family just to develop and maintain my patents. I just do not believe the independent inventor is the problem.
QUINN: I agree with you. I think that the fee shifting is very problematic because the unfortunate reality is that the big companies will wind up settling with people with low quality patents and those are the ones that patent legislation is allegedly trying to deal with. But people, such as yourself, who have patents that have good priority dates, a lot of disclosure and there is some real reason to believe that there’s infringement, they’ll just litigate as long as it takes in order to win. Have you experienced that kind of situation where the bigger companies are just forcing you to engage in a protracted litigation before they are ever even really going to seriously talk to you?
SAWYER: Yes, we’ve experienced that. It took us almost a year and a half in a fast-paced, “rocket court” in Virginia and finally that company came to the table and settled with us. But it was a very difficult road. We spent a lot of money and we do not have a lot of resources. So it is unfortunate, but this effectively disincentives the innovation and invention by the small inventor. Big business will be able to, more easily, steal and profit from the hard work, innovation, and sacrifices of others.
QUINN: What is this doing for your continuing appetite to try and innovate?
SAWYER: One thing that helps me is that I am a retired guy and I got an Army pension and that is keeping me going. I am very interested in making things work, in innovation. I get out of bed and that’s what I want to do every day. So that’s what keeps me going.
QUINN: I really appreciate you taking the time to talk with me Fred. I think your story is a good one to tell to get people to understand that there are an awful lot of innovators who find it exceptionally difficult to make a living innovating when large companies are willing to ignore patent rights.
SAWYER: Right! Gene, I’m glad to have the opportunity to use your platform to tell the small inventor’s side of the story, a story that needs to be told to all who care to listen. Thanks so much for the interview.
Updated March 22, 2015, to correct an error in the transcription. Changed “could see they” to “conceived.”