Ground-fault circuit interrupters (GFCIs) have become ubiquitous in North American kitchens and bathrooms thanks to the overwhelming promotion of safety requirements in building codes. And, as a global leader in GFCI technologies, with numerous patents to its name, Leviton Manufacturing Co. has become a champion of such electrical fail-safes.
Over the past decade, however, the company has seen more and more infringements of its GFCI technologies imported from China. It has been fighting for years against the importation of knock-off GFCIs, but only recently did a decision by the International Trade Commission (ITC) make inroads toward a crackdown.
Meir Y. Blonder, Leviton’s general counsel and chief intellectual property counsel, explains that when imported GFCIs using Leviton’s patented technology appeared on the US market, the company faced two choices: pursue action through the courts or bring a proceeding with the ITC, a quasi-judicial federal agency that provides trade-policy advice. Typically, Blonder says, a company does both. “When you file a complaint with the ITC, you simultaneously file a complaint in federal court,” he explains, “but the respondent will ask the federal case to be stayed pending the outcome of the ITC investigation, so the ITC is the first step.”
The value of beginning with the ITC is the speed it offers and its power to prevent objectionable products from entering the country. “A court can grant monetary damages if you win, which the ITC can’t, but the ITC is quicker, and a quick resolution barring importation is the thing you need more than anything else,” Blonder says.
“A quick resolution barring importation is the thing you need more than anything else.”
Meir Y. Blonder
General Counsel & Chief Intellectual Property Counsel
In 2012, Leviton prevailed, receiving two ITC orders. The first was a cease-and-desist order forcing the respondents to Leviton’s complaint to stop selling any GFCIs they had already imported. The second was a general-exclusion order directing US Customs and Border Protection to prevent the importation of infringing products.
The ruling, Blonder says, was atypical. “Usually an exclusion order is limited, meaning it will be directed only to the entities you actually named in your complaint,” he explains. “But after showing that the infringement of our GFCIs was so prolific and [showing] the ease with which some of the entities doing the infringing were frequently changing their names, we received a general exclusion order, which tells Customs that anyone trying to import an infringing device should be blocked.”
The ITC orders are just a starting point, however. “Customs is on the lookout for products that appear to be GFCIs,” Blonder says, but sometimes, of course, infringing items still make their way through. Leviton is prepared to catch them, and much to the benefit of it and other domestic manufacturers, patent enforcement in general has increased over the past 10–15 years, including the use of the ITC. “We constantly monitor the marketplace for infringing products,” Blonder says, “and when they come to our attention, we attempt to resolve the matter with them or let the ITC know.”