Raymond E. Stauffer was shopping at a New Jersey mall when he noticed something peculiar about the bow ties on display at Brooks Brothers: They were labeled with old patent numbers.
Mr. Stauffer, who calls himself a "sharp-dressed man," also happens to be a patent lawyer. He sued Brooks Brothers Inc. in federal court, claiming it broke the law by marking its adjustable bow ties with patents that expired in the 1950s.
And of course we are off to the races:
Marking a tube of toothpaste or paper cup with a patent that is out of date or doesn't exist has been against the law for years. It is considered anticompetitive. Until late last year, the most a violator had to worry about was paying a $500 penalty for misleading the public.
But in December, the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit in Washington ruled that defendants could be held responsible for up to $500 per offense.
Lawyers for product manufacturers now fear clients are liable for up to $500 for every tube of mascara or box of garbage bags marked with an expired patent—an error that turns out to be quite common.
In recent months, would-be plaintiffs have been fanning out across retail stores and the Internet searching for expired patent numbers on everything from toothpaste to toilet plungers.
I have to admit that to me the most baffling part of this story is that there once were patents on bow ties and toilet plungers!