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Ralph Nader > In the Public Interest > Mistreated Inventors

One would think that anyone who invented a way to “post-tension” concrete so as to reduce the cost of such building, bridge or highway construction and make these structures last longer without maintenance would have businesses beating a path to the proverbial doorway. Not so, in case of Fred Lang, former Du Pont engineer and a very resolute entrepreneur.

Several companies liked Lang’s Polystrand CP tendon, as it is called. They liked it so much that, according to Lang and his lawyers, they appropriated it without paying him any royalties. So began a 10-year legal battle in the courts to stop these firms from infringing on the patent and to require them to pay Lang damages.

It was a long, tortuous, expensive 10 years, but last month Judge Murray Schwartz in U.S. District Court in Wilmington, Del., ruled that the Prescon Corporation had willfully infringed on Lang’s patent and set a date for determining how much the company would have to pay him. Another trial is scheduled against another alleged infringer later this month in federal court in Alexandria, Va. Negotiations between Lang and some Japanese companies are under way concerning similar claims of infringement.

Another group of companies learned about the Polystrand CP tendon, which looks like a greasy cable inside a plastic tube. They were not interested in selling less concrete and less steel. So they were not interested in Lang’s invention. A recent article in Engineering News-Record reports some information that explains why. For Lang’s tendon makes bridges and highways and vertical parking garages last longer, consuming less concrete and saving up to 90 percent of the steel required to lay down a slab of highway. That means saving on taxes used to build highways and fewer potholes and cracked pavement to boot.

Lang’s contribution to construction durability and cost reduction works. Prescon alone conceded that it made 23 million feet of the tendon just in 1979. But when the history of Lang’s lonely struggle against seemingly overwhelming odds and expenses is written, his contribution to defending the rights of the individual inventor in America may be more significant.

I gathered a sense of what Lang is determined to do by talking to his lawyer, Sid David. Was Lang’s victimization by corporate patent infringers an uncommon situation? Not at all. According to David, the business woods are full of people like Lang who invented useful products or ways of making things safer or more efficient or more lasting only to find their patent worth little more than a right to sue. A right to sue by a broke individual against a clutch of wealthy corporations becoming wealthier on the inventor’s back can breed some righteous cynicism.

Lang wants greater recognition and protection for the lone inventor. He knows what the studies and reports have demonstrated–namely that most of the great inventions in American history came and still come from the minds of individual inventors. Committees are not very inventive and corporate committees less so. Hailing from Missouri, Lang exudes that stubborn streak that fuels the critical stamina to stay with a cause through thick and thin.

Based on his experience, Lang can advise inventors with the benefit of his breakthroughs. He now knows how to negotiate arrangements with lawyers to take inventors’ cases on contingencies so that the doors to the courtroom do not have to be opened by a mountain of dollars. He is seasoned in keeping the case on a high plane of morale and regularly contributing to the tedious process of fact collecting. He is wise in appreciating the need for inventors to organize themselves more effectively to expand and implement their legal rights.

Perhaps what is so intriguing to so many people like Lang is the rarity of truth to the old saying that if you invent a better mousetrap, the world will beat a path to your door. Inventions often challenge vested interests, dislocate old ways of doing business and displace existing technologies or products. They challenge profitable waste in our economy and open new doors for small businesses to challenge the giant businesses. That is indeed the next challenge for the thousands of mistreated inventors. The efficiency, innovation and safety of the economy will depend in no small measure on people like Lang starting an economic movement that joins with the consumer movement in a shared drive for results.

(Anyone interested in reaching Fred Lang can write to him in care of the Daily Local News, West Chester, Pa. 19380.)