Kiwi inventor wins champagne patent battle

FIONA ROTHERHAM
Last updated 14:34 30/03/2012

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Kiwi inventor Bryce Stewart popped the cork on a champagne bottle and went out for a restaurant meal with his wife after being awarded US$864,500 ($1.06 million) in a High Court battle over infringement of his patented bottle opener.

Stewart, now resident in Australia, took a case to the High Court in Auckland seeking damages against an American marketing company, Franmara, which he had discussed licensing his patented "Stopper Removing Tool" to without success.

The 71-year-old former Mt Maunganui resident, who's been inventing stuff for many years, spent eight years slaving over a bottle opener that quickly and neatly extracts all the cork along with the wire restraint and foil wrapping from a champagne bottle.

By 2003 he'd finally perfected the design and the following year was awarded patents in New Zealand and the US to protect his intellectual property.

He was approached by Californian-based Franmara which signed a confidentiality agreement requiring the company to only use information on the bottle opener to evaluate its potential for marketing. It agreed not to copy or reproduce the invention without Stewart's permission.

After inspecting the design, Franmara president Frank Chiorazzi Senior made him an offer of only US$2,500 for the licence which he turned down.

Stewart claimed after he entered into an alternative distribution deal with a Chinese company, Zhejiang Zhogrun Tools, he discovered the Americans had breached his patent and distributed a copycat opener, the Champagne Xpress, based on his design.

It turned out Franmara had approached the Chinese manufacturer and attempted to order 2,000 bottle openers identical to Stewart's.

After the Kiwi inventor ended his deal with Zhejiang in 2007 due to his concerns over manufacturing issues, he wrote to a minister in the Chinese government in Beijing - whose name he had found on a website.

The Chinese government authorities took his complaints seriously and soon after raided Zhejiang's factory and broke the moulds it held for Stewart's bottle opener to prevent them being manufactured without his permission again.

He says the company was also fined by the Chinese authorities.

Although Stewart says he has sold around 800,000 of his bottle openers worldwide, he and his former Australian distributors had little success trying to break into the US market because Franmara was continuing to offer online its copycat opener.

In late 2010 Stewart wrote to Franmara warning he would take legal action if it continued infringing his patent but received no answer.

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Following the High Court hearing which the American company failed to defend, Justice Kit Toogood made an interim judgement ordering Franmara to pay US$864,500 in damages based on a "reasonable royalty" from September 2005 to March this year, calculated at the rate of US$133,000 per year. Interest is also due on the damages along with court costs.

Because online distribution occurs in countries with access to the world-wide web, including New Zealand and the US, the American company was found to be infringing Stewart's New Zealand patent.

In his judgment Justice Toogood said "in design, shape, style and operation, the defendant's bottle opener is a replication of the invention. I am satisfied the defendant has manufactured or otherwise obtained such bottle openers by copying the plaintiff's invention."

Still to be decided is Stewart's claimed breach of his American patent and alleged breach of the Business Professions Code of California.

- BusinessDay.co.nz

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