“We’re thrilled that a major binding manufacturer has finally taken the big step in bringing knee-safe technology to the market. However, we’re not so thrilled that they stole Carl Ettlinger’s lifetime work and achievement. We hope the case can be amicably settled asap.”-David Dodge, Co-Founder of Vermont Safety Developments.
Head Sports could be in big trouble for alleged patent infringement. Snow Industry News reports that Head Sports is being sued by Vermont Safety Developments, LLC.
Vermont Safety Developments alleges that Head Sports stole innovations from a patent that Carl Ettlinger, who was regarded as an expert in ski binding design, and David Dodge, who helped created over 180 ski and snowboard patents worldwide, created for a binding that protects skiers from severe knee injuries.
They allege that Head Sports corresponded with Vermont Safety Developments about the binding for years, denying that they had an interest in making their own knee-friendly binding. After they let Head know that their patent had been accepted, communications between the two sides became much less frequent. Dodge offered to license the technology to Head Sports multiple times, but Head Sports rejected multiple offers from them, reiterating that they didn’t have an interest in creating this kind of binding.
While Ettlinger was seriously ill in 2019, Vermont Safety Developments Robert Stanzl of Head Sports sought to obtain data developed by Mr. Ettlinger over the years from his daughter, Heidi Ettlinger. Stanzl provided no explanation for the request nor why he had not contacted Mr. Ettlinger directly. In response, she provided some information but explained to him that she did not have access to the data.
In spite of denying they were creating their own binding, Head Skis filed their own patent in 2020 and announced the release of a product in 2022. The lawsuit alleges that the innovations that Head Sports claimed that they created were actually from Vermont Safety Development’s ski binding patent.
Vermont Safety Developments is seeking a preliminary and permanent injunction against Head’s infringement of the Ettlinger patent, an accounting to be done of damages caused, and further relief as the Court thinks is appropriate.
You can read the claim here. A summary of the case is down below.
“In the early 2000s, Carl Ettlinger entered into a collaboration with Co-inventor David J. Dodge to develop a new knee-friendly ski binding design. This collaboration led to the formation of Plaintiff VSD and a number of ski binding innovations leading to two granted United States patents and a number of foreign patents, including the innovative ski binding described and claimed in [the] asserted Ettlinger patent.
At the time Dodge began the collaboration with Ettlinger, he already had over 30 years of experience in snow sports equipment design in roles ranging from design engineer for Rossignol Ski Company to Director of R&D for Burton Snowboards to owner of multiple independent ski equipment companies. Dodge is an inventor on more than 180 worldwide ski and snowboard technology patents.
The collaboration between Ettlinger and Dodge led to the development of the inventions disclosed and claimed in the Ettlinger patent for which an initial, provisional patent application, entitled “Knee-Friendly Ski Binding” and assigned serial number 60/836,454, was filed on August 8, 2006.
This new type of ‘intelligent platform’ binding system is embodied in the Ettlinger patent, which binding designs are able to measure not only dangerous twisting/bending moments but also the location of the forces producing those moments, thus eliminating blind spots of excess retention that conventional bindings are unable to resolve. It is the extensive investment in testing and development, as well as the patented designs described in the Ettlinger patent, that Head repeatedly sought access to in its dealings with Ettlinger, Dodge and VSD.
In early 2007, Head studied the VSD work analyzing the inaccuracies in the Innsbruck binding release dataset and asked numerous technical questions, which were answered by VSD in extensive email exchanges, including further extensive and detailed reports of data analysis. Head included in this technical exchange Mr. Christoph Wurm, who was later named as an inventor by Head on its own U.S. Patent No. 11,325,018 describing the infringing Protector ski bindings.
During this same time frame, using principles developed by Ettlinger and Dodge, Head undertook its own knee-friendly binding development program, but was thwarted repeatedly by a lack of understanding of some basic principles. Head thus repeatedly returned to Mr. Ettlinger and Mr. Dodge to help correct its errors and assist in its own safe binding development project.
Requests for additional technical information from Head personnel to Mr. Ettlinger and Mr. Dodge continued for the next few years. Head continued to seek information while repeatedly avoiding questions about its interest in a serious investment in the VSD technology and patent. Then, in April 2009, while reporting on additional requested work, Mr. Ettlinger informed Head of the imminent grant of the Ettlinger patent.
After informing Head of the grant of the Ettlinger patent in June 2009, communications from Head effectively ceased. In fact, thereafter, Mr. Dodge had to inquire a number of times regarding promised feedback on and return of a binding release simulator that VSD had developed and loaned to Head for evaluation.
From this point on, Head largely went silent with respect to its development efforts on a knee-friendly ski binding. In an attempt to generate new interest, Mr. Ettlinger sent an update on the technology and recent work to Head in 2011. The only reply received from Head was from Mr. Alois Himmetsberger, a Head engineer with whom Mr. Ettlinger had met with in the past on the knee-friendly ski binding project and who is himself a prolific inventor, named on over 60 Head/Tyrolia equipment patents. In a February 2011 email, Mr. Himmetsberger expressed regret that he was not at that time involved in research at Tyrolia, but further expressed his opinion that ‘your ideas are worth to spend time and money, but it’s not my decision.’ The technical merit of the VSD technology was recognized within Head, even if it was unwilling to officially state as much.
Having heard little from Head for a number of years, VSD again tried to interest Head in licensing its technology and the Ettlinger patent in 2017, including traveling to Austria to demonstrate a working prototype of the patented technology adapted to Head ski bindings. After many months and repeated follow ups, in February 2018 Head finally declined the offer of a license, stating ‘we are still not sure if we will develop a product ….’
Taking Head at its word that it was not developing a product that would require a license under the Ettlinger patent, VSD did not again contact Head on that topic for a number of years.
Then, in October 2019, knowing that Mr. Ettlinger was seriously ill, Mr. Stanzl of Head sought to obtain data developed by Mr. Ettlinger over many years from Mr. Ettlinger’s daughter, Heidi Ettlinger. Mr. Stanzl provided no explanation for his sudden request nor why he had not contacted Mr. Ettlinger directly. Ms. Ettlinger provided some information in reply, but explained that she did not have access to the data Mr. Stanzl sought. In a further reply, Mr. Stanzl disingenuously agreed ‘that in the last decade there were no significant steps forwards to reduce the amount of injuries in skiing, especially knee injuries,’ while knowing full well that under his lead Head had rebuffed all attempts by Ettlinger to get Head to license and adopt that very technology, the technology on which Head was then poised to file its own patent application.
Less than four months after Mr. Stanzl sought to obtain data from Mr. Ettlinger’s daughter without ever attempting to contact Mr. Ettlinger himself, and in spite of Head previously stating it was not developing a knee-friendly ski-binding product, Head filed its own Austrian patent application on a binding system incorporating the principles of operation developed by Mr. Ettlinger and Mr. Dodge many years earlier.
The patent application filed by Head was Austrian application no. A 50078/2020, filed January 31, 2020, and serves as the basis for a foreign priority claim in the later-filed application on the Head U.S. Patent No. 11,325,018. After announcing the accused Protector ski binding as part of its winter 2022/2023 product line-up, Head described it as the ‘safest binding’ ever built.
Mr. Stanzl, who had corresponded with Mr. Ettlinger since the mid-1990s on skiing injury mitigation and safer ski binding designs, who had met with Mr. Ettlinger and Mr. Dodge numerous times in Vermont and in Austria on those same topics and the design of their patented binding, and who had been a guest at Mr. Ettlinger’s home on more than one occasion, described the project to create the accused Protector binding as follows:
Never before has there been so much basic scientific research, medical and sports-scientific support for a long-term development project. And above all such detailed and result-oriented tests by internationally recognized scientific institutions, as with the Protector. Our thanks therefore also go to the University of Innsbruck/Tyrol, which has given us enormous commitment and sustained support in presenting the problem and examining the individual development steps.
Later in 2022, after Head announced that it was in fact intending to release a ski binding specifically designed to reduce ACL injuries in precisely the same way as first developed and patented by VSD, VSD made one final attempt to persuade Head to license its technology and the Ettlinger patent. This time the refusal from Mr. Stanzl was terse, stating only that after review by its patent attorney (notably not by any of the many engineers who had worked with and evaluated the technology multiple times over the preceding 16 years), Head was not interested.”
Image Credits: Head Sports