Genius and Justice on the Silver Screen

Necessity is the mother of invention—and invention is the mother of patent law. The statute protects true innovation from the powerful, the greedy and the uninspired. But the law doesn’t always work on the first try. Or the second. Or the third.

Bob Kearns fought for years to be credited for his invention.

Bob Kearns fought for years to be credited for his invention. Photo: The Washington Post

Such was the case for Bob Kearns, inventor of the intermittent windshield wiper, whose struggle is depicted in the recently released film Flash of Genius, starring Greg Kinnear. Kearns, who grew up in suburban Detroit and earned his doctorate in 1964 from the Case Institute of Technology, patented his invention in 1967 and marketed it to the city’s auto giants.

When they turned him down and began manufacturing the wipers themselves, an epic David-and-Goliath battle erupted. The legal warfare spanned decades, ultimately ending in several multimillion dollar settlements for Kearns.

The persistent inventor died in 2005 just 10 years after his final settlement. He mused in a newspaper interview after of one of his lawsuits, “I don’t think the goal was the magnitude of the money. What I saw (as) my role was to defend the patent system. If I don’t go further, there really isn’t a patent system.”