China’s Hon Lik is a somewhat controversial figure in the global vaping community, crowned in some sections of the blogosphere as the modern-day inventor of the electronic cigarette. Love him or hate him, the man was once the proud owner of some very impressive patents that many believe are the basis for a large portion of today’s e-cig market. After years of suing competitors over copyright infringement issues, Lik threw in the towel. He sold his patents to Imperial Tobacco in 2014 and went on to bigger and better things.
With the patents now owned by one of Big Tobacco’s wealthiest and most powerful companies, manufacturers of e-cig and vaping technology around the world began to wonder just how aggressive Imperial Tobacco would be in pursuing new lawsuits. After a recent court ruling in the UK, we may have just discovered that Hon Lik got the better end of the proverbial deal.
Phillip Morris takes on Imperial Tobacco
In the lawsuit, a subsidiary of Philip Morris International, Nicocigs LTD, was suing Imperial Tobacco for its “claiming improved aerosol effects and atomizing efficiency or, alternately, for a declaration that its e-cigarettes didn’t infringe the patent.” Essentially, Phillip Morris wanted the right to market their own brand of e-cigs in the UK. But Imperial Tobacco claimed that their patents gave them a sort of monopoly on the market. Imperial-owned Blu Ecigs and the new Dragonite line were allegedly the only brands legally allowed for sale in Britain.
But the UK judges nixed that idea fairly quickly. The court ruled that the patent claims were anticipated and obvious in light of a previous patent filed in the U.S. To put this another way, Imperial Tobacco did not prove successfully that their patent is the end-all-be-all in e-cig technology. There may be some similarities between competing patents, but not enough to restrict others from selling their own product lines of electronic cigarettes.
“The court also found that some claims in the challenged patent lacked an inventive step, a concept U.S. patent attorneys refer to as obviousness. Nicocigs argued that the challenged patent is obvious in light of several pieces of prior art, one of which is European Patent No. EP 0 893 071 describing an air flavor generating device. The court said that, despite a dispute over whether the liquid storage chamber in that patent was refillable or exchangeable, the implementation of a detachable end chamber would be obvious.”
When Imperial Tobacco bought Hon Lik’s patents in 2014, the company paid a cool $75 million for the honors. Lik’s reputation in the vaping community took a bit of a hit, as well. Many vapers thought that he was “selling out” to Big Tobacco. However, if this recent UK court ruling in any indication, perhaps Hon Lik knew what he was doing after all.
(Related Article: CHINA: VAPING’S SECRET WEAPON TO BATTLE THE FDA E-CIG REGULATIONS?)