IP law firm has its roots in the 1920s auto industry

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By Sheila Pursglove
Legal News

The intellectual property firm law firm of Harness, Dickey & Pierce — only a few years shy of its centennial celebration in 2021 — has a long and fascinating history, dating back to its founder, Jake Harness, whose own star rose in tandem with the fledgling automotive industry.

 “We’re a national and international firm, and proud of our automotive and Midwestern roots,” says Principal Monte Falcoff.

Harness, born in Corydon, Ky. in 1897, came to Detroit in 1916 to study at the Detroit College of Law. He put himself through school by working as secretary to the general attorney at Ford Motor Co. — at the grand starting salary of $90 a month — and where, at the tender age of 21, he organized and headed the first patent department.

After graduating from law school in 1920, Harness left Ford the following year to enter private practice; and in November became patent counsel for Maxwell Motor Corp., which became Chrysler Corp. in 1925. Harness juggled private practice and his work as chief patent counsel for Chrysler until retiring from the automaker in 1962.

Harness launched his patent and trademark law firm on May 15, 1921, on the 10th floor of Detroit’s tallest skyscraper, the Majestic Building; but soon moved his fledgling firm to the General Motors Building.

A former DCL classmate, litigator Arthur Dickey, joined him as a partner in 1925, as did Hodgson Pierce. The firm’s letterhead proudly proclaimed: “Harness, Dickey & Pierce — Attorneys and Counsellors, General Motors Building, Detroit — Patent and Trademark Practice Exclusively.” Harness worked part of his day at Chrysler and in the other part his firm wrote and prosecuted patent applications for Chrysler.

After patent attorney William Hann joined the team, for a brief time the firm’s moniker was “Harness, Dickey, Pierce & Hann,” before reverting to “Harness, Dickey & Pierce.”

“Within the past 10 years, we use the shortened trendy version ‘Harness Dickey’ to make it a bit easier to say and write,” Falcoff says. “However, we’re still proud to be the same ‘Harness, Dickey & Pierce’ that’s excelled for more than 90 years. The firm may have a slightly strange name but no one will ever forget it.”

By the mid-1960s, HDP had grown to 26 lawyers and moved to larger space in the Fisher Building. Harness was still associated with the firm, but Dickey and Pierce were deceased. Two of Harness’ sons had become partners of the firm and his son, Don, a well-known patent trial attorney, became a driving force in leading the firm after his father’s retirement.

 In 1973, the firm moved to North Woodward Avenue in Birmingham, and in the early 1990s shifted to its current address in Troy, now within an easy drive of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office Detroit branch. In 2001, HDP opened sizable offices in Reston, Va., close to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office headquarters; and in 2000 in Clayton, Mo., a suburb of St. Louis.

 Collectively, HDP has approximately 110 patent and trademark attorneys. About 66 of these attorneys are in Troy, along with about 146 non-attorney employees — making HDP the largest law firm office in Oakland County. Most of the firm’s attorneys hold technical degrees beyond law, including biological and engineering backgrounds; and the firm handles several industries, including Business & Information, Electrical & Computer, Life Science, Material & Chemical, Mechanical & Electromechanical, and Pharmaceuticals.

“It’s remarkable how diverse the clients, patents and lawsuits have been over the 90-plus-year history of the firm,” Falcoff says. “Some of the early patents seem quaint today - they’re a fascinating part of U.S. industrial history. The old patent drawings were usually much more artistic than the computer drawings used in modern patents.

Some of these interesting early patents obtained by HDP include patents for a “Universal Joint” issued to Crist in 1926, and “Muffler for Internal Combustion Engines” issued to Schwager that same year. “Washing Machine” was issued to Gies in 1927; and in 1928, “Airplane Motor” was issued to Stalker and “Refrigeration” was issued to Nelson and assigned to Copeland Products Inc. — still a client of HDP. “Seat Construction” was issued to Selje in 1929; and assigned to the Murray Corp., another former automotive supplier legend.

The firm has also fought some notable lawsuits through the years, including a rather strange one in the late 1980s/early ‘90s — Shearing v. Iolab Corp. and Johnson & Johnson, in which HDP represented the defendants in the District of Nevada, and well-known general practice trial attorney Morton Galane represented the plaintiff. The subject was a patent covering a method for inserting an artificial optic lens having resilient J-loops to hold the lens in the eye, for cataract surgery.

“The plaintiff had a cadaver exhumed to determine if a third-party doctor had inserted an invalidating lens in this patient — it turned out the doctor’s notes were incorrect and the cadaver was not the correct patient — big oops,” Falcoff says.

In the late ‘60s, HDP represented Sears Roebuck & Co. against Jerome Lemelson, about a patent covering toy guns having a ricochet sound-producing mechanism.

“HDP would have many additional run-ins with the infamous ‘patent troll’ Jerome Lemelson again in the 1980s and 1990s with regard to his bar code reading and automated manufacturing ‘submarine’ patents,” Falcoff says.

According to Falcoff, the firm — whose work includes preparing patent and trademark applications, rendering freedom-to-practice and infringement opinions, negotiating licenses, and taking the vanguard in patent and trademark lawsuits throughout the world — receives a significant amount of patent and trademark business from Asian and European companies.
“Yet unlike many of our D.C. competitors, the majority of our work is still U.S. originating, and most of our new clients come from word of mouth and referrals,” he says.

“We’ve been ranked among the top five in U.S. patent issuances for the past three years and among the top 25 in 2011 U.S. trademark issuances — we’ve come a long way since the firm’s sole practitioner beginnings almost a century ago.”

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