Sunday March 09, 2014
Museum of Intellectual Property
Professor Eric E. Johnson
Museum of Intellectual Property
“Fresh Oil.” Warnings like this one are a fact of life for travelers during the summertime road-construction season. But seeing these words of caution on a five-foot-wide fluorescent orange sign in the Thormodsgard Law Library at the University of North Dakota School of Law might take you by surprise. But the sign is very much at home as part of Professor Eric E. Johnson’s Museum of Intellectual Property.
The Museum houses artifacts central to leading cases from a long history of intellectual property law. Professor Johnson, Assistant Professor of Law at UND, first conceived of the idea for the Museum while he was teaching patent law in 2005, and he has been collecting items ever since.
Professor Johnson says that he was interested in intellectual property law even before law school. The legal issues, arguments, policy concerns and philosophical aspects of intellectual property law all intrigue him.
“Intellectual property law is always something I’ve found fascinating,” Professor Johnson said, “and there’s always been an opportunity to flesh it out with images and specimens.”
Professor Johnson has used the Museum as a way for his Intellectual Property students to be able to better understand the cases they read. While some textbooks include pictures from the cases, Professor Johnson believes, “Objects are even better than pictures.”
Items on display in the Museum come from cases dealing with copyright, trademark, patent, and right-of-publicity law. They span four centuries, with the oldest exhibits dating from the 1700s. In all, Professor Johnson has collected over 100 artifacts, though not all are on display.
In addition to showing off the items, the Museum project also functions to preserve the objects because, according to Professor Johnson, “they represent an aspect of history that is not in books.”
TrafFix Devices, Inc. donated the “fresh oil” sign, which was the focal point of their litigation against Marketing Displays, Inc. The flexing dual-spring base of the sign, which prevents it from being blown over in high winds, had been previously protected under a patent owned by Marketing Displays. Once the patent expired, TrafFix began manufacturing its own dual-spring design. Marketing Displays, seeking to stop TrafFix, sought to protect the design under trademark law. The case was appealed all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled that the design, which was functional in nature, could not be protected as a trademark, thus giving TrafFix the green light for continuing to manufacture its version of the product. Interestingly, the appellate lawyer for TrafFix was John Roberts, now the Chief Justice.
Other artifacts may catch your eye as well. There are several knock-offs in the Museum, including a “Swiss Navy” knife, an oddly named alternative to the popular army knife from landlocked Switzerland. Of course, there is also that icon of counterfeit merchandise, the fake Rolex watch.
Another item of interest is the vintage Super Soaker water gun, which was involved in a 1993 patent infringement case. Amron, the patent holder, was unable to prevail against the Super Soaker’s maker because Amron’s patent specified a water reservoir inside the gun. The Super Soaker’s tank sits on top. The case illustrates the importance of the exact language of patent claims.
Two silver forks in the Museum, sitting side-by-side, appear to be duplicates. Upon closer examination, you may notice very slight differences. One, manufactured by Godinger Silver Art Co., is an affordable alternative to the very expensive Grande Baroque silverware made by Wallace International Silversmiths. Wallace sued for trademark infringement, arguing that the design functioned to identify their brand. Godinger countered that the pattern was only for aesthetic value. The Second Circuit agreed with Godinger.
While these are a few items you can find at the Museum of Intellectual Property, there are many more. The Museum is currently geared towards people who already have an interest in intellectual property law or have general legal knowledge. However, Professor Johnson hopes to expand the collection to include an educational component that would be accessible to the lay person.
“In the future, I am hoping to create some exhibits that have an explanatory side to them, so that people can learn something about intellectual property law by looking at them,” he said.
Professor Johnson is continually adding to the collection. The goal of the Museum is to preserve case artifacts for posterity.
“It makes sense to collect those things and keep them and preserve them so that they will help to provide an understanding and a context for those cases,” said Johnson. “These cases will continue to have an enormous impact on the law for hundreds of years, so there is a great historical interest in understanding all the facts that surround a case.”