Federal judge receives IP award

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By Tom Kirvan
Legal News

For a jurist who has received “multiple” awards from various bar associations over the course of his 36-year career on the federal bench, U.S. District Judge Avern Cohn admits to being “deeply appreciative and highly honored” to be chosen as the first recipient of the State Bar of Michigan’s Excellence in Intellectual Property Award.

The honor was presented to Cohn September 17 during a meeting of the Intellectual Property Law Section of the State Bar at the Westin Book Cadillac in Detroit.

“With the creation of the Michigan State Bar Excellence in IP Award, the IPLS sought to recognize and celebrate the accomplishments of a lawyer who had excelled in the intellectual property field and exemplified professionalism, excellence, and dedication to furthering opportunities and accomplishments in the area of intellectual property,” said IPLS Chair Karl Ondersma in his remarks at the awards ceremony last month. “Judge Cohn has been on the bench for over 35 years and exemplifies the accomplishments identified by this award, and he is well known and highly respected by the bar throughout Michigan.”

Yet for Cohn, his interest in patent law was more akin to an acquired taste.

“I came to my judgeship knowing nothing about trademark, copyright, or patent law,” Cohn said in his acceptance speech September 17. “Indeed, I doubt if I had ever read a patent.”

His first patent case, the 1981 ruling in Schweitzer v. Binks Manufacturing Co., revolved around “paint spray booths and charges of invalidity and infringement.” The case, said Cohn, “gave me a good start” and served notice that every succeeding foray into the world of patent disputes would be “an intellectual adventure.”

Said Cohn: “I had to educate myself on patent law – dealing with Title 35 (of the United States Code) is like an exercise in biblical exegesis. I did this by reading lectures and listening to cassette tapes, mostly by Howard Markey, then-chief judge of the federal circuit. He was an excellent teacher. I also remember long conversations, mostly late at night, with a close friend and patent lawyer, Richard Dibner, then a partner at Harness, Dickey & Pierce.”

To date, Cohn has been involved in more than 100 patent decisions “spread over a variety of art forms.” Of particular note, Cohn presided over the cases brought by former Wayne State engineering professor Robert Kearns against Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler Corp. The inventor of the intermittent windshield wiper, Kearns won multi-million-dollar verdicts from the two automakers for patent infringement. His legal saga was brought to the silver screen in the 2008 movie, “Flash of Genius.”

A 1949 graduate of the University of Michigan Law School, Cohn spent 30 years in private practice before accepting an appointment to the U.S. District Court. Before becoming a judge, he served on the Michigan Social Welfare Commission, the Michigan Civil Rights Commission, and the Detroit Board of Police Commissioners.

Last year, just weeks before he celebrated his 90th birthday, Cohn and his wife, Lois, were honored with the 2014 Activist Award from the Jewish Community Relations Council. The Cohns were saluted for their “prolific legacy of commitment and contributions to the Jewish community, advancing social justice, and supporting Detroit’s arts and cultural institutions.”

In addition to his community activism, Cohn said he is continually enriched by the joy of legal learning. In particular, he said, “intellectual property cases, patent, copyright and trademark, are the most satisfying and interesting cases on my docket.”

Perhaps he might want to patent his own special brand of humor, which was on display at the State Bar ceremony last month. In closing his remarks, Cohn told a story shared years ago by a fellow judge as “I was about to encounter my first set of patent lawyers.” The story, Cohn told the IP audience, goes something like this:

“It was the late 1790s when the guillotine was in regular use. On execution day, the first to mount the platform was a baker. As he lay his head on the block, he was heard to say, ‘Good Lord, I’m coming,’ and down came the blade.

“The second was a butcher. As he lay his head on the block, he was heard to say, ‘Good Lord, I’m coming,’ and down came the blade.

“The third that day was a patent lawyer. He lay his head on the block and nothing happened. The blade was stuck. He looked up and was heard to say, ‘If you flip that screw it will work.’”

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