WASHINGTON -- Inventor Noel Zeller spent two years in his workshop perfecting a clever new creation, a small reading light that attaches to a book. He christened it the "Itty Bitty Book Light."
He spent the next decade in court, fighting copycat companies and foreign knock-off firms. Some adopted not only the concept, but stole Zeller's unique design.
"At last count there were 72 copies," the inventor said from his home in Mount Vernon, N.Y.
Now, Congress is considering legislation that would offer more protection to people like Mr. Zeller. It would permit the copyrighting of distinctive designs for 10 years. The
copyright would cover only a product's distinctive look, not its function.
But opponents of the bill -- and there are plenty -- say that copyrighting designs would result in government-sanctioned monopolies, cost consumers billions each year, restrict what Americans can buy and only benefit attorneys.
"It will inflate consumer costs and give monopoly prices to the most mundane products," said Rhonda Parish, an attorney for Wal-Mart, the discount store chain. Fear of lawsuits could intimidate stores into eliminating lines of bargain-priced generic products, she added.
The design bill debate has pitted two powerful and well-heeled forces against each other in a grinding lobbying effort.
Advocates are led by a coalition of major automakers, organized labor, manufacturing firms and leaders of the U.S. House of Representatives. Opponents include the insurance industry, consumer groups, discount retailers and -- especially -- auto parts dealers and repair shops. The latter contend the bill would force customers to buy replacement auto parts from the original manufacturer, which could devastate their businesses.
"I was brought up with the idea that in America, if you invent something, the world will beat a path to your door, and Thomas Edison and all that," Mr. Zeller said. "It's really a shock to your system to find out [otherwise]. . . .
"You're idealistic . . . and you never realize how many sharks there are out there.
"If you don't give the creative guy some protection and let him invent things that make life a little better, where's the next generation of products going to come from?" he asked.
But others see the bill as forcing consumers to pay more while injecting government and litigious attorneys into the production and marketing of virtually every manufactured product in the United States.
"There's no question that when you give somebody a 10-year monopoly, they'll charge whatever the market will bear," said Mark Silbergeld with the Consumers Union.
Take Zeller's book light, which sells for $30. Within a year, nearly identical knockoff copies were selling for about $20. Consumers got roughly the same light for less -- at Zeller's expense. Does that constitute theft? Would 10 years of protection be fairer?