With five patent-infringement cases currently before the courts and others constantly being negotiated outside of the courts, Vectra never stops protecting its 14-year-old patent vigorously, whether the defendant is big or small.
"The real truth is, people rip you off from Day 1," Jose Sanchez, Vectra in-house general counsel, told SNEWS, "and unfortunately the way patents work you have to go after them because the government doesn't do it for you."
Although Vectra recently settled a year-old lawsuit against Body-Solid in a confidential agreement that included a license, Sanchez said, others are still outstanding in the U.S. District Court, Western District, in Seattle, Wash. According to the latest-available court records, they include filings for patent infringement, among other things in some cases, against:
- Icon Health & Fitness, and Sears on March 19, 2002 â€“ Currently scheduled for jury trial on Sept. 15.
- Precor on March 24, 2003 -- In discovery as of late April.
- Northern Lights on April 8, 2003 â€“ Beginning discussions.
- Kamparts Inc. on May 1, 2003â€“ In discovery as of mid-June.
- InternetFitness on May 14, 2003 â€“ Also entering discussions.
The most interesting case to watch will be the one against Icon since neither company is known as one to back down and settle. So far court records show 123 entries, rulings, or court appearances in front of Judge Barbara Rothstein. Icon did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
"We aren't going to back off," Sanchez said, "No, they don't back off.
"We fight all our cases with the same tenacity," he added.
The original patent was issued in 1989. A reexamination of the patent was partly triggered by a now-settled 1996 lawsuit against TNWK (Pacific Fitness) Corporation. The U.S. Patent & Trademark Office re-affirmed the validity of the Vectra patent in the fall of 1998, and that case was settled in 2001 without a trial. The patent is for the company's "On-line No Cable Change System" introduced in 1987, when the patent application was filed. The system has been called "sleek," "elegant," and "ingenious" by industry observers.
Vectra, based in Kent, Wash., now has about 10 licensing agreements with various companies, Sanchez said, some of which may not actually be manufacturing a product currently that mandates a license, and some have negotiated this agreement but maintain they are not infringing. He added that settlement is the preferred road to follow because litigation is always uncertain and never cheap.
"It's been a long tough road to try to protect this patent," Buell Ish of Vectra told SNEWS. "It just goes on and on."
In related news, Vectra has begun to protect its brand with consumers via its own website (www.vectrafitness.com). On the site, Vectra has added a so-called "Internet Buyers Warning" that states, in part: "Vectra Fitness, Inc. does not authorize any dealer to sell on the Internet. Any Vectra gym for sale on the Internet is either a used unit and/or does not carry a warranty. Homegymbynet.com is not a Vectra Fitness authorized dealerâ€¦. Unauthorized dealers may try to 'bait and switch' by advertising Vectra products but then offering a 'higher rated model.' Is the rating their own? Is the 'higher rated model' the only one they really have to sell? Buy Vectra products from your local authorized dealer. You'll save time, money and be much happier in the long run."
To put the above statement in context: Homegymbynet, an InternetFitness property, has a comparison chart on its site (still up as of June 30) that included its own Evo gyms as well as those it does not sell from Bodycraft, Hoist, Maximus, Pacific, and Vectra.
SNEWS View: Of course, Vectra's court activities are not isolated. Many fitness manufacturers are in and out of court constantly, and licensing agreements are as rampant as ants at a picnic. It will however in this case be interesting to see how bulldog Vectra fares against just-as-tenacious Icon in their case. Of course, we know that to hold onto the rights of a patent, a company must defend it, but -- bottom line -- it's truly unfortunate how many companies end up in court over and over since often the awards don't even begin to pay legal costs, meaning that in the end, only the attorneys leave happy.