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Rubber Band Wars

If you’ve got middle-school age daughters, you’re most likely aware of the latest accessory trend in pre-teen fashion—rubber band bracelets. There are several products resembling old-fashioned looms and sold at craft and toy stores that allow the users to weave multi-colored rubber bands into the bracelets.

One of the rubber-band loom manufacturers, Rainbow Loom, sold more than 1.2 million of the kits last year. At $15 a pop this is big business.

Now comes word that Rainbow Loom is suingrival manufacturer Zenaconclaiming infringement of a patent granted to it in July. This issue is whether you can patent a product that has been around for decades or centuries—like rubber bands or looms.

Rainbow Loom’s owner Cheong Choon Ng, a Malaysian immigrant, claims that he created the market for rubber-band crafting. It’s his pond and his competitors want to dip their beaks into it. 

The Wall Street Journal quotesthe owner of the defendant company, which sells the competing product FunLoom as hoping to resolve the suit amicably. Probably meaning FunLoom can be bought.

The Lobster wishes all the competitors well. Lord knows we have a soft spot for entrepreneurs, especially in this day and age. Our economic system makes it relatively simple to start a business. What happens after that is up to you.

But the rubber-band bracelet wars brings up a deeper problem for entrepreneurs who want to market the next mousetrap. Or in this case, loom. 

New technologies like three-dimensional laser printing, fast manufacturing techniques, e-commerce, just-in-time inventory procedures, and global sources of cheap labor are challenging entrepreneurs like never before.

These technologies make it easier for rivals to cash in on the latest fads or fashion trends, says the Journal. The result? The number of U.S. patent lawsuits filed last year topped 5,000—a nearly 30% hike from the year before.

At the same time the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office granted over 270,000 patents last year. That means a lot of patent enforcement actions and a lot of work for intellectual-property attorneys.

At some point in this country’s recent past we moved beyond the age of invention, the age of Edison and Westinghouse, and into the age of research and development. We moved from an age dependent on the invention of new products to an age dependent on new processes.

It’s good to see the pendulum swing back in favor of entrepreneurial inventors. But times have changes. Unfortunately the patent and trademark laws haven’t. Here’s to courts and legal scholars looking across the spectrum and finding ways to balance the rights of the entrepreneurs who create products and jobs with the animal competitiveness of the free market which benefits all of us.