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Jewish World Review April 13, 2001 / 20 Nissan, 5761

Pam Louwagie

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Consumer Reports

Inventor suing over patent for car coffee mug -- Those nifty coffee mugs - the ones with the narrow bottoms that fit into soda-can-sized cup holders in cars - are everywhere nowadays; for sale in stores and coffee shops, emblazoned with business logos for corporate giveaways.

Tom Schaeppi of Maple Grove, Minn., can only flash a bitter smile every time he sees one.

A longtime java junkie, Schaeppi, 49, claims he invented the mug design a dozen years ago when he couldn't find a mug that fit into the cup holders in his minivan. He says manufacturing companies have been mugging him of his patented idea ever since.

Schaeppi and his attorney have begun methodically filing patent infringement lawsuits against makers of what they claim are impostor mugs.

"I was the first one to come up with this mug," Schaeppi said. "I'm looking at getting some just compensation."

So far, six companies have signed license agreements with him, he said, two as a result of lawsuit settlements in the past three years. Two suits are pending in U.S. District Court in Minnesota, including one against the Thermos Co., a major mug maker.

At least one defendant says Schaeppi is making claims on a design that already existed. Though he may have a patent for its use with a cup holder, the defendant's lawyer contends, the basic mug shape has been around for years.

Schaeppi said he was frustrated a dozen years ago when his wide-bottomed mug went flying every time he made a sharp turn in his van. He looked down at the cup holders and decided he needed something that "fit into those holes."

A light bulb in his mind flashed.

He sketched a design and called a business associate in California who made ceramics. He went to trade shows to see if such mugs existed, and he couldn't find one.

"I knew I was onto something," he said.

He applied for the first in a series of patents in 1992 and, as the owner of an advertising and marketing company, he began marketing the mugs.

Business was promising at first; he says he sold about 300,000 mugs to Target, Dayton's and a few other outlets, including some car accessory catalogues. He named them Tower Mugs because of their resemblance to water towers.

"I was thinking this was going to be great," he recalled.

Then, about a year and a half after his prototype was made, he saw an advertisement for another mug with his design, he said, and he felt a dull ache in the pit of his stomach. He had competition.

Once similar mugs hit the mass market, with versions imported from overseas, Schaeppi said, his Tower Mugs couldn't compete.

"That's when I realized that really the only way I was going to get anything from it was to defend my patents," he said.

He shut down his mug-manufacturing business in 1997, licensed a couple of companies to make and market his mugs, and applied for additional patents.

He collected six from 1993 to 1999. Most of them are continuations of his first design, with the last patent covering any mug with a narrow bottom roughly the size of a pop can, a wider top and a capacity of more than 12 ounces.

Schaeppi says he has identified at least 50 companies that may be infringing on his patents. His attorney, Alan Anderson, estimates there may be "millions" of copycat mugs.

Pam Louwagie writes for the Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune. Comment by clicking here.


© 2001, SHNS