SANTA CRUZ – In a 16-month-long trademark dispute that pits 3M, a $23 billion international company, against a garage-based Internet stethoscope business owner, defendant Pradeep Mohan says he hopes he’s nearing the end of an ordeal that should have been cleared up long ago without drawn-out litigation.
Instead, Mohan who has been selling stethoscopes imported from China through several website companies, as well as on Amazon.com, Cardioglobal.com and eBay.com, is facing a multimillion-dollar suit.
3M, which may be best known by consumers for Scotch tape but also dominates the international stethoscope market, sued Mohan in U.S. District Court in June 2009 for his use of 3M-images in Internet advertising and similar corporate language in packaging for stethoscopes. The company claims Mohan ignored initial legal warnings that his marketing was confusing consumers.
Lawyers representing 3M declined to comment on the case but Donna Fleming Runyon, a 3M spokeswoman, said the company believes that Mohan uses “3M marks or marks that are confusing and similar to 3M marks.”
Consumers, she said, mistakenly believe his products are either from 3M or somehow sponsored or approved by 3M.
“It’s especially important that purchasers of health care products such as stethoscopes receive authentic products,” Fleming Runyon said. “3M is committed to the enforcement and defense of its intellectual property rights through litigation and other forms of dispute resolution.”
Despite warnings from friends, colleagues and even the judge presiding in the case against him, Mohan, an engineer by training and self-described “failed” startup entrepreneur, has represented himself. He has argued that 3M let its trademark expire, was confusing and negligent as well, and is basically monopolizing the market by repressing competition.
“3M could have made one phone call and this fiasco could have been averted and nipped in the bud,” Mohan said in a recent court brief. “Yet its hubris, its arrogance and its incompetence led it to plunge headlong into this precipice.”
Since last year, Mohan has fielded hundreds of documents from a team of 3M lawyers. Last week, he flew to Minneapolis to argue his defense in a week-long bench trial. 3M called about a dozen plaintiff witnesses; Mohan called a single defense witness, a Minnesota nurse who testified that she wasn’t confused by his marketing.
From his 1,200-square-foot home on the Westside of Santa Cruz, Mohan describes it all as a wasteful, paper-intensive battle by a bullying corporate giant. But at least he’s trying to have fun.
“I have seen several cases where people get obsessed with these things,” Mohan said. “My inspirations were Jack Kerouac and The Merry Pranksters,” Mohan said, noting that the dive in the housing market has meant that he doesn’t have many assets to protect. “I knew if I got upset, it would destroy my health. I think they’re trying to use me as an example but if I lose this bench trial I think the judge will issue an injunction and a slap on the wrist. I think I have a very strong case.”
Mohan says he’s spent about 200 hours on the case, primarily researching on the Internet, but he’s spent twice that much brooding while walking his dog. He estimates his total out-of-pocket expenses have been about $2,000. He saved money by finding an online deal to Minnesota last week on Southwest Airlines for $129 and hopped between hotels during his trial to keep prices down.
In his closing brief to the court, Mohan said that he had stopped all marketing practices in question long ago and that while 3M had called him “a guerilla marketer,” his unconventional tactics have simply involved operating on a shoestring.
“I stayed in four different hotels during the seven days of this trial,” he wrote. “I recycled the binders that 3M had sent me to save $10. I used the free Nicolet Mall bus and I paid $100 to fly from San Jose, California to Minneapolis. Your honor, it takes a special talent to be 58 years old, have two master’s in engineering, an MBA from Berkeley, (one of the top three business schools) and be dead broke. I HAVE that talent.” But, he insisted, “I AM innocent and I have nothing to hide.”
This article was first published here.