NEW YORK -- Established and long successful inventor Louis J. Jenn has taken out patents on an idea nearly as old as the hills -- inner courtyards for buildings.
The question now is, will builders using the atrium concept step aside and let him reap royalties?
Jenn, a Hoosier businessman who 'retired' a few years ago to go right back into business, knows the ins and outs of patents like he knows his own name. He has an almost religious faith in them.
They are 'the great equalizers,' he says. They can be 'laid like a minefield' around an idea, and woe betide the man who trips one off: the whole field goes ker-boom.
A patent, says this avowed 'patent nut,' can send the high and mighty -- like General Electric not so many years ago -- scurrying, hat in hand, to the doorstep of the little guy who first had the bright idea, whatever it might have been. And the little guy then calls the tune.
'That's how the founding fathers wanted it,' Jenn said. 'They put it in the constitution because they recognized that you don't get progress without it.'
Jenn, who's 70 now, discovered the power of patenting an invention back in 1946 with the first mushroom-type kitchen ventilator.
Profits and royalties enabled him to finance Jenn-Air Corp., which in 1961 brought out the first smokeless indoor grill. In 1979, 18 months after taking Jenn-Air public and seeing the stock price more than double, Jenn sold the company to Carrier Corp. for $88 million.
Both ventilator and grill are now in the public domain, patents having the disadvantage for their holders of expiring after 17 years.
Both, too, are still commanding large markets, the grill under the guidance of Maytag Corp., a division of United Technologies, which took over Carrier, but also thanks to the efforts of 13 other companies that distribute their own versions.
The Kitchen-Aire ventilator, Jenn proudly reports, now shares a market worth $90 million annually with nine competitors marketing copies.
Few would contest that these two mid-20th century inventions of Lou Jenn's were inventions in the true sense of the word and thus eminently patentable.
But now Jenn has patented what he calls 'atrium structures' and the question arises whether he's claiming a proprietary right over an architectural concept that really belongs to all mankind.
The atrium, of course, is simply an inner courtyard, one around which a house or some other building is built. The world, particularly the Mediterranean and Arab worlds, is replete with atriums and the mere fact that they are rare in the United States at present wouldn't seem to make them patentable.
Jenn strongly disagrees, insisting that he has come up with 'the first new architectural concept in nearly a century,' the answer to a number of contemporary American problems that architects and builders are in fact compounding by continuing to build 'in the same old way.'
Wasn't he entitled to a royalty, he asked, to get them to see the light and start building houses with their walls at or very near the property line so as to shield the yard (now dubbed atrium) on all sides from an increasingly hostile outside world?
Moreover, he said, a single-family atrium dwelling can be built for $28 or $30 per square foot, as against $50 for a classic structure, so a royalty of $1 a square foot would be painless for home-buyers.
The privacy and security such a layout affords, Jenn contends, are becoming indispensible to an America where 'people are being squeezed together' and only the wealthy can afford to put enough land and fences between themselves and their neighbors to enjoy real privacy and security.
Memories of the more serene Midwest of his youth, Jenn admits, may well have spurred his efforts. Then, too, as some associates say, Lou Jenn is 'a very private man.'
Though he doesn't live in an atrium structure, he does believe that a man's house is his castle and a castle is just what his 4,000-square-foot home onthe outskirts of Indianapolis was designed to look like, complete with its French renaissance dining room, Mediterranean-style family room and cavernous 'great room' with 25-foot ceiling and 100-ton stone fireplace.
Jenn brushes aside questions about a charitable foundation he has set up in Indianapolis and avoids talk of his family of four children and of his leisure pursuits.
He does, however, mention that he has a brother who is in the building business in Peoria, Ill., and takes pride in having funded a retirement complex in his home town of Iowa Hills, Iowa, as a memorial to his mother.
But the brother thinks well of the atrium structure, it turns out, and there are no claims that the retirement complex, known as Atrium Village, was built solely for sentimental considerations.
Exasperated, finally, by persistent questioning about the legitimacy of patenting an old idea, Jenn dived into his briefcase and plucked out a copy of a page of court decisions from a tome entitled, 'Patentability of Inventions.'
The encircled paragraph was headed 'Rediscovery of lost art or device,' and said, 'Where an art or device has been lost or forgotten, a patent is not void for want of novelty to one who invents and rediscovers such lost arts.'
Half a dozen decisionsgoing back to Gayler v. Wilder, N.Y. 1850 were cited.
Jenn, whose years seem to have detracted little from his vigor, narrowed his eyes at this point, and commented:
'Thomas Edison used to say, 'a patent is an invitation to a lawsuit.''
That was as a truth in the class of one he had discovered for himself as a boy at his father's hardware store in Iowa Hills: 'Get it patented to keep the big boys from taking over.'
The atrium structures, which Jenn sees being built across the country in myriad urban renewal and retirement center projects as well as individual homes, have been protected by a basic mechanical patent with 18 claims. Thirty more patents have been applied for.
With this minefield in place, Jenn said with a wry grin, 'you could get trapped if you try to infringe' -- which is what happened to several companies who tried to copy his kitchen inventions.
Having all this experience in patents and patent-infringement lawsuits and having served as a trustee of the National Patent Council for eight years, Jenn maintains he is ready for all comers.
'The last time somebody tried it, it cost him treble damages and legal fees, and you can consider, as a rule of thumb, that it costs three times as much to infringe as to defend against infringement,' he said.
For a while longer Jenn brushed aside persistent suggestions that other builders and developers seem scarcely likely to pay royalties to Atrium Structures Inc -- into which Jenn has put 10 years' labor and '$8 million to $10 million' of his own funds -- for what, in much of the world, was never 'lost' and hence cannot be 'rediscovered.'
Finally he came clean, displaying perhaps some of the grit that has served American small businessmen from time to time in their battles with the 'big boys.'
'Well,' he said, 'I guess we're going to have a lot of infringements.'