Update: Official complaint can be read here (Illinois case 1:12-cv-09033 PDF).
Last night the New York Times published a sensationalist article titled Popular Wrench Fights a Chinese Rival. It tells the story of how Sears opted to produce the Max Axess Wrench under their Craftsman brand rather than to order pallets of Loggerhead Tools’ Bionic Wrench to stock in its stores.
The story is still somewhat murky, but it looks like there were timing issues and disagreements about price, with negotiations failing to result in a deal ahead of Father’s Day. The NY Times article also goes on to say that the Bionic Wrench inventor refused an order for the tools before the major tool gift-giving holiday.
I noticed the Bionic Wrench in stores during the 2011 winter holiday shopping season. No doubt thousands of DIYers received these gifts as tools.
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Knowing that Loggerhead Tools refused Sears’ order ahead of Father’s Day, it makes sense that Sears would seek the ability to create a similar tool of their own.
Without a doubt, the Max Axess Wrench is very heavily inspired by the Bionic Wrench. But it’s not a clone. There are significant differences, including the addition of a locking mechanism that sets a fixed opening for the jaws.
The company that manufactures the tools for Loggerhead has recently laid off nearly 3 dozen employees, although there has been no confirmation that this is a direct result of Sears not ordering Bionic Wrench to sell during the 2012 Christmas shopping season.
Loggerhead Tools is not going to have an easy chance confronting Sears in court over the matter. There seem to be too many differences in the designs. Designers and engineers for Apex Tool Group, who manufactures the Max Axess Wrench for Craftsman and Sears, likely combed over the patent to reduce the chance of punishable infringement.
Loggerhead Tools’ best tactic will probably be to drum up publicly support and to egg Craftsman and Sears as much as they can. They’re going to have to put on a show. Why do you think the NY Times ran a headline that focuses on how the Bionic Wrench is made in the USA and the Max Axess Wrench in China?
The best I can see happening is Loggerhead Tools winning some sort of a licensing agreement through a settlement. It seems unlikely that they will take the financial risk to pursue the issue in court since Sears has far deeper pockets.
Focusing on where the tools are manufactured only serves to raise emotions and cloud up the real issue. Loggerhead Tools and Sears were having difficulty coming to mutually amicable agreements, so Sears brought to market a version of their own.
I’m trying not to take sides. I always thought the Bionic Wrench was gimmicky, but practical, although I never purchased one. The Max Axess Wrench looks similarly gimmicky and practical, but has an added locking feature. Both look to be good tools.
A lot of people are huffing and puffing about this. After reading about the article I too am disappointed about how things went down. Even so, Sears might have made the correct business decision. If a vendor that makes a unique product won’t sell you their products to resell in stores ahead of the second largest consumer tool sales period during the year, a smart retailer plans for something else to take its place before the holiday shopping season comes around.
That Sears and Craftsman came out with their own similar-but-not-cloned version of the Bionic Wrench will possibly hurt Bionic Wrench sales. But the major hurt to Loggerhead Tools is not that Sears is selling the Max Axess Wrench, but that they’re selling it instead of the Bionic Wrench. Judging by the display bins I saw at stores last year and what the NYT article said about how well the tools sold at Sears last year, the losses will be great.
All I know is that this is a messy situation. However Sears and Loggerhead Tools settle their differences, there won’t be a resolution until 2013 at the earliest. This means that whatever happens, Loggerhead Tools is going to suffer greatly from lost sales.
It’s not uncommon for one brand to produce a tool heavily inspired by another – this happens all the time, especially with the new semi-gimmicky “innovations” coming out every year ahead of the Christmas and Father’s Day shopping seasons.
The fact that such business practices are commonplace doesn’t help the situation Loggerhead Tools is in.
As neutral and objective I’m trying to be, it pains me to know US workers linked to the production of the Bionic Wrench have lost their jobs. I have not spoken with anyone at Loggerhead Tools or their manufacturing partner Penn United Technologies, but it is presumed that fewer than expected holiday-times orders are at least partially if not entirely to blame.
I was initially outraged at about the situation, but now I just don’t know. Looking deeper, there seems to be a lot Loggerhead Tools could have done to protect themselves better. They put too many eggs in one basket and haven’t come out with anything new for some time. How about a ratcheting Bionic Wrench?
Right now my feelings about this are all sorts of wishy washy. But then again, that seems to be the point of the NY Times article – it almost seems like the major objective was to mark Loggerhead Tools a victim and Sears a villain. Whether or not that’s how the two companies deserve to be seen as is difficult to decide.