A Watertown teen and her younger sister have come up with a simple way to keep your smartphone or tablet clean in what sounds like the American Dream come true. But now the girls' family is on the receiving end of a million-dollar lawsuit.
“I just feel like we're a really good business," said 14-year-old Sophia Forino, proudly showing off her bright idea. “It's basically just like a microfiber cloth that I cut out and you turn it over. I put double-sided tape on it."
The crude prototype led Sophia, her sister Marissa and the girls' father to develop a product they named HypeWipes: microfiber cloths with an adhesive that keeps them stuck to a smartphone or tablet, so they can be used anytime.
That, along with 54 different designs, has made the product a hit, something Sophia and her dad Rocco Forino, sensed for the first time at a trade show in Chicago.
“There was genuine excitement for the product,” said Forino.
But the family's growing business screeched to a halt this summer when they came face-to-face with the unexpected.
"We received an email addressed to Sophia and Marissa stating that 'We appreciate your ingenious idea and it's great to be an entrepreneur and all, but you're infringing on our product and we'd like you to stop selling it and remove it from the stores immediately,"" Forino explained.
Another product, a sealed bleach towelette called a Hype-Wipe, has been around much longer. It's sold mainly to hospitals and companies for use as a disinfectant and cleaner.
The Hype-Wipe is made by Current Technologies Corporation of Crawfordsville, Indiana. Company president Susan Hapak, who sent the email to the Forino children, declined to comment on the case.
Current Technologies has a longstanding trademark on the Hype-Wipe. But the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office also issued one for HypeWipes this summer.
Rocco Forino explains when the business came up with the name HypeWipes, the Forinos ran a Google search and nothing similar came up. More importantly, according to Forino's attorney, no website had claimed that domain name.
“So we're going through all the names, checking them off, and they were like, 'HypeWipes.' It was not taken; different variations of it weren't taken," Forino said.
He said he paid $1,000 to conduct an exhaustive third-party search to make sure no one else was using a similar name. Nothing came up.
Blake said that's not common, but not impossible. He added that the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office also runs a check for similar names before issuing trademarks, but with millions of applications each year, its searches are not as detailed.
The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office would not comment on the situation.
Current Technologies is also demanding that HypeWipes take down its website – and more.
“Our customers started getting letters stating that if they continued to sell our product they would be sued," Forino said.
Forino reached out to the NBC Connecticut Troubleshooters after Current Technologies sent letters to his daughter's schools, threatening to sue them if they sold HypeWipes during any kind of fundraiser.
“It's pretty aggressive, pretty tasteless, for a company that's not even in the same industry to attack a kid-owned company in that manner," said Forino. “It is very heavy handed. They didn't have to be as heavy handed."
Patent and trademark attorney Michael Blake, who is not associated with the case, said these tactics are not uncommon in such disputes.
"It looks like this Indiana company wants to play hardball," Blake said.
In fact, Current Technologies is now suing HypeWipes for $1 million.
Blake estimates that Current Technologies has about an 80 percent chance of winning.
“Whoever uses the trademark first typically has priority over anyone else who comes after," he explained.
Blake added that a judge will also consider the likelihood that people will get confused between HypeWipes and Hype-Wipe.
“They're both used for cleaning, so they're fairly similar, in similar channels of commerce," said Blake.
The lawsuit demands that HypeWipes hand over all its inventory. Forino said he is willing to drop the name, and has already shut down the HypeWipes website, but he wants his company to sell off the $40 thousand worth of remaining HypeWipes that all have the name printed on them.
For now, Forino does not think the two sides can settle.
“In order to compromise, you just can't negotiate with a gun to your head," he said.
We will let you know how this product standoff finally gets cleaned up.