Back to Woodworking – a Rip Off

What do you call it when an inventor surrounds his invention with 83 patents? Can’t get his invention into production because of the royalties he expects? Goes into business producing the product himself? Gains favorable import tariff legislation by contributing to legislators? Has a hard time selling the too-expensive product to consumers? Then, elbows his way into the market through legislation that mandates use of his invention?

Robert Lang at Popular Woodworking Magazine has done a yeoman’s job of chronicling the entire table saw safety story. His long and complete coverage has been very neutral in tone, probably because he’s a great guy, and is also because he’s clearly interested in providing unbiased information to a broad audience of readers.

Today, Robert tells us that California is on the verge of passing a law that mandates flesh sensing technology on table saws … and the only current producer of such saws is SawStop.

crony handshakeI heartily welcome ANY technology that makes table saws safer. Most woodworkers know how dangerous table saws are, and far too many suffer injuries with them. The SawStop technology certainly makes table saws safer. Yet, I can not stand quietly by while aggressive use of patent law, failed attempts at rational technology adoption, and outright CRONYISM gives one company a government sanctioned monopoly.

My suggestion is to require that any such legislation also include language that requires product availability from 5 or more firms before the law can be enforced.

13 Responses to “Back to Woodworking – a Rip Off”

  1. Scott Turner Says:

    This is a complex issue because the big saw manufacturers have a vested interest in NOT offering this technology. It isn’t at all clear to me that SawStop is the villain here (although they may be). With your proposed legislation, I suspect that the saw making cartel would simply continue to stonewall the technology.

    I think a better solution would be to force a compulsory license fee of (say) $100 per saw for the patented technology. However, that would require a Federal action. I don’t believe that California could do that on its own.

  2. Brian Eve Says:

    Forget for a moment that most manufacturers of table saws have sold out to produce cheaper (as well as less-expensive) saws in China, I regret that this has to go to legislation.

    I would buy a SawStop saw if I were in the market for one, because the safer technology is a great selling point.

    Don’t make me buy one or use legislation to cripple the competition. I would like to make the choice myself.

  3. Bob Says:

    Mr Turner,
    “…force a compulsory license fee..” Say what? Isn’t that EXACTLY what a patent royalty is?

    Please go read the history of SawStop. Read Mr. Lang’s series of articles. Then do some research about the history of the company. Look at campaign donations to legislators in Oregon. Look at legislation that exempts import duty for two table saws that operate at very specific electric current draws.

    The technology inventor is a patent attorney first, an inventor second, and lastly a woodworker hobbyist. He tried for many years to sell his technology to what you call a “saw making cartel.” (Really, a “cartel?” Who knew!?!) He came close to striking an agreement with one of the manufacturers, but like anyone with common sense, they quit negotiating when his price became too high.

    As far as a “vested interest in NOT offering this technology” goes, the vested interest of most manufacturers is making a profit. If they believe a product will become too expensive for their customers, they see no profit. If any one of them could have brought this miracle technology to market at a cost that would bring them more market share than their competitors, they would have done it in a heartbeat. The facts are, the inventor priced himself out of the broadest part of the market, made his product a niche product while expecting it to be a universal product.

    He then tried to get Federal legislation passed mandating his technology, but that failed too.

    After being an unnamed interested party in a lawsuit against the very firm that almost made an agreement with him earlier, he took his case to the Consumer Products Safety Commission. They are moving at the usual glacial speed of government and haven’t granted his monopoly yet.

    Meanwhile, he has been manufacturing the product in Taiwan (FREE China, not RED China) and has acquired legislation that exempts his two classes of saws from US import duties.

    Now, California.

    If one is a believer that GOVERNMENTS are the fixers of all problems, then I supposed the attorney that wrote those 83 SawStop patents isn’t a villain at all.

    … more background here.

  4. Luke Townsley Says:

    I get the problem. I’m not sure sawstop is the best solution, but regardless, why does government have to get involved? When they can competently defend our borders, win/stay out of wars, and fix roads, maybe then they can think about moving on to something else.

    And if this technology really is that important, why allow patents at all?

    It isn’t like it is a technology that is that difficult to come up with considering modern technology. I haven’t seen a sawstop or tried to make one, but I would think I could make one in my garage without a big todo.

    IMO, the low end junk is the real villain in table saws. I had one of those $100 saws and sold it out of fear. I warned the buyer to be careful too. Granted, the fancy saws can mangle and impale too.


  5. Neil Cronk Says:

    It’s the case that always comes up in America. Legislating for stupidity. The land of the “free” is so scared of taking personally responsibility that they need to legislate for the stupidest in the land.

  6. David Griffiths Says:

    This is a difficult and complex issue that requires a different approach maybe.Safety is obviously paramount but are we talking about your personal responsibilities towrds yourself, or are we talking about your responsibilites towards your employees.In Britain you are deemed responsible as regards hobby woodworking for your own safety,however the minute somebody else uses your equipment or you employ somebody to do so then a whole raft of different legislation kicks in and rightly so.
    As to the political element then you have to question whether your system of legislature is open to corruption and abuse,similarily those who represent you and conceive your legislature.Let’s face it if any manufacturer would have conceived this and thought that they could get an appreciable edge over the competition they would.What is more important patent protection or public safety?I think that the way forward could be that this legislature can only proceed if the benefits were shared subject to a fair licencing fee,and there was a distinction between private use and commercial use.
    As to a radical solution-ban the use of all table saws[except in commercial instances where proper training and safety issues are in place] and look to enhance the accuracy of bandsaws,a much safer device in my opinion,especially for the untrained.All commercial use of circular saws in Britain requires training,special guards for example with dado sets,and the use of braked motors on all powered machinery.
    By the way my intention is not to preach to you and promote our system as better,I just thought that I might offer a different perspective!

  7. thekiltedwoodworker Says:

    “…California is on the verge of passing a law that mandates flesh sensing technology on table saws…”

    In other news, a THIRD California city has recently decided to go the way of bankruptcy. Last year, the state of California had a deficit of $6B.

    Maybe we shouldn’t look to California as our “business plan” on how to do things.

    I’ll sell my table saw and start practicing with my Disston #7 before I let some state or federal legislation tell me I have to buy a specific brand. Hell, I might just do that anyway and beat them to the punch. My wife sure wouldn’t mind seeing it out of the garage…

  8. Warren Coutts Says:

    From what I read, it sounds to me like the inventor of SawStop is simply following the long established and respected business practices of big pharma, the energy industry, financial services industry, chemical industry, communications industry, arms industry …. hell it is simply what has made America the “land of opportunity” and such a great place to do business.

  9. Scott Turner Says:

    Bob, I have read quite a bit about the SawStop situation, although I don’t claim to be a lawyer.

    The problem is that if a manufacturer offers the SawStop technology on even one of their saws, they fear they will become immediately liable to lawsuits from injuries on all of their other saws. (Plaintiffs will argue that the manufacturer created increased risk by not using the technology on the non-protected saws.) Similarly, they fear that if anyone else licenses the SawStop technology, they will become liable to lawsuits on their saws. (Plaintiffs will argue that the manufacturer created increased risk by not using a technology that was in common use in the marketplace.)

    The only sure defense against these risks is if NO manufacturer licenses the technology for ANY saw. And there’s some indication that the saw manufacturers understand this and are acting as a (at least default) cartel.

    This is the same reasoning that saw manufacturers have used to avoid offering splitters, blade guards, cut-off switches and other safety features. The outrage about SawStop would be more understandable if the saw manufacturers haven’t repeatedly avoided adding any safety features until forced to by law. What’s more, there are competing technologies (see Whirlwind Tools, for example) that provide the same safety features — and the saw manufacturers are avoiding using those as well.

    But perhaps every inventor is a villain.

    And no, patents are not the same as a compulsory licensing fee. A compulsory licensing fee would open the technology up to anyone who wants it at the same price point. And it would eliminate any objections that SawStop has priced the patent out of reach.

  10. Bob Strawn Says:

    To solve this problem myself, I made a variation on the EZ-ONE Power Bench. I mostly do hand tools, but when I need to make a long cut this is a safe tool to use, since there is no motive or convenience to having you hand anywhere near the cutting edge. I prefer my tools to not have a self destruct mechanism.


  11. Tom R Says:

    I, personally, think safety should come first. Sure one can be more careful and maybe that person won’t injure themself but having the SawStop sure as hell helps. I get why having one company with monopoly on the market can be a bad thing. Though I think the general idea of making things alot safer is a good one.

  12. Bob Says:

    Yes, I agree that safety is incredibly important.

    History has shown that monopolies arise ONLY with government assistance, by “partnerships” and rule making that favors one firm over all others. When monopolies arise, all competitors face financial ruin. People lose their businesses, their life savings, their investments, their livelihoods … all at the whim of government picking winners and losers.

    If you believe that allowing a monopoly to arise is a small price to pay for safer saws, you had better hope that the government doesn’t next turn its attention to YOUR business.

    It is not the safety I object to, but the cronyism.

  13. Scott Garrison Says:

    Bob, thanks for this. I have not read the details yet but plan to do so. I am writing now because I am now reading your post and will be away for a few days time and likely will have other fish to fry.

    Let me say that I am a patent attorney and have been one for almost 20 years. I once believed in the system and believed that it helped the little guy establish a foothold (the whole better mousetrap thing). But being a corporate patent attorney for many of my latter years in this INDUSTRY (as opposed to the profession that people still think it is) I have to say I see how the system is rigged and over the years I have seen abuses grow.

    If the story is as you say, 83 patents to cover the product (well that’s good conceptually for the inventor) and all things being equal I still see that as a proper use of the system because the market can decide (or not) whether to license the technology. However, if legislation forces it to be used by industry/consumers against their will then that is an even greater monopoly then the patent system was meant to envision. That is wrong.

    The state of this country and the abuses of the legal system …well let’s just say I don’t like them, but I will keep my mouth shut so as not create a manifesto. One person who you may like to look to is Judge Michel who is a retired judge of the CAFC (the highest patent court in the land). He is far better at words than I and his views are truly eyeopening. Google him if you get a chance.

    All the best