Little person gets her month in court, $60 million

Managing Editor

Newell, Iowa
Here's the latest news from the Brower house in Newell, Iowa: Eighth-grader Wade hit his first home run on Wednesday.

First pitch. Out of the park.

"Wow," said his mom, Sharen.

She had come home to this small town in northwest Iowa just in time from Detroit, where a federal jury had awarded her $48.7 million against the nation's largest ink manufacturer, Flint Ink.

Wade was being humble, saying other kids had hit more homers than him. Then the phone rang again, interrupting the budding lefty from his television show, "The Price is Right."

Of course, the calls were coming from investment advisors all over the place. Newspapers, magazines, TV stations, too. But this one was from Jim Gailey, the Newell lawyer who saw Sharen and Arlin Brower through their eight-year ordeal. She took the call, then returned to her story, which goes something like this:

Newell mother/artist/teacher, married to a dirt contractor, takes on big corporation for ripping off her formula to make a better soy-based ink. After a month-long trial, she wins. Story not done: She could get up to $60 million.

"I guess it's news," she said.

Indeed. The largest damage award ever to an independent inventor.

Sharen Brower sat in the back patio, batting away flies. She waved to a neighbor who rode by Howard Street on a lawnmower. Her mother, Harriet Laursen of Newell, was just leaving.

"I think we're home now," Sharen sighed. "I'm just ready to let things go the way it happens. All I was trying to do was paint with ink."

She never set out for the money, she said. She thinks she will see the money someday, but she says that is not what concerns her most. She talks about getting home at 6:30 p.m. the night before daughter Jamie's graduation from Newell-Fonda High School. She remembers all the track meets and golf meets she missed.

"What has this cost me? I don't know," she said. "Everybody thinks this means instant wealth. It really is just words on paper."

Flint Ink issued a statement after the verdict was read. "We believe the lawsuit is totally without merit, and we are confident that we will be successful in the appeals process," said Larry King, general counsel for Flint Ink.

Brower figures appeals could take six months, a year, maybe three years.

Meantime, Arlin was anxious to get home. "He's pushing dirt," Sharen said.

Farmers have been patient. Work must be done. Bills must be paid. Hog confinement pads must be poured.

The Browers have been consumed by the case since Flint Ink sued Sharen on a patent infringement in 1993. She countersued. But it all started long before that.

Her dad, Chris Laursen, worked for Sievers Implement, hauled garbage in Newell, did what it took. Mother Harriet drove bus, did odd jobs, did what it took.

"We're humble people," Sharen said.

She was graduated from Newell-Providence High School in 1967, and later Wayne State University in Nebraska. Sharen majored in speech and drama in college, with minors in English and art. She returned to teach three years in Fonda (pop. 700), three in Rembrandt (pop. 400), and finally settled into Newell (pop. 900) when she married Arlin 20 years ago this September 13.

"I love teaching," she said. "I do emergency subbing just so I can stay in contact with kids."

Sharen had drifted away from teaching and into art. Ten years ago she opened a studio. She became somehwat a regional celebrity. Many people noted her work refurbishing a nativity set at Sacred Heart Church in Early. These were not jobs to pay daughter Jamie's upcoming tuition at Buena Vista University, however.

"I paint barns," she said. "I mean, I put barns in paintings."

She painted barns on cream cans, on windows, on fabric, wherever.

She had a studio, where she did work for a variety of clients. With all this variety came different demands for the media in which she worked. So, Sharen was constantly fiddling with inks, water and paper.

Being a teacher had taught her to be systematic and take notes. Or maybe it was her guardian angel, she believes.

Whatever, while walking through the World Ag Expo picking up freebies at the Amana Colonies with Brian and Penny Sievers in 1988, Sharen came upon a soy ink booth. "I was drawn to it - what is it, how does it work? They told me I couldn't order it. I was working with ink in baby food jars, they were working with ink in drums."

Later, she saw a story about soy ink in a farm publication. That drove her interest further. She had to have that soy ink, because she wanted to do pen and ink drawings with soy washes instead of watercolor washes. Soy ink is richer, brighter and more permanent than watercolor.

"It's corny, I know, but this is Iowa. This is what we grow here. And this is the kind of art I was doing," she said. "The rural stuff."

Sharen ordered a tin of ink from Flint Ink.

It was thick and tacky and impossible to work with. So she mixed up a teaspoon of ink with some turpentine and shook it up in a baby bottle.

But the teacher in her went to sleep.

She was three-quarters of the way through a drawing for McKubben Seeds - it was working great, the pheasants over the corn fields and the barn - and she ran out of ink.

She realized she had not written down the formula.

"I was a wreck. I worked for days trying to remake that ink," she said. "You can bet I wrote everything down."

Sharen became far more involved in developing the ink than she ever imagined. Smell was a problem. She was concerned about plugging and corrosion in pens.

"I bought every kind of varnish I could find," Sharon said.

Finally, she switched to soy-based varnishes that gave the ink great viscosity, adhesion and permanence.

This was a key to her entire dispute with Flint Ink and the resulting trial: her determination to get the petroleum out of the ink and to get the natural soy oil in.

A man from Heartland Press in nearby Spencer - which prints glossy magazines - saw her ink at an Iowa Soybean Association display. Soon publishers from across the country were calling her. She wouldn't tell them her formula, because she was the only artist working in this medium.

Sharen Brower is competitive.

Sharen Brower wanted to be first. She knew she was.

But she did tell Flint Ink, eventually.

On Jan. 9, 1990, Sharen, Arlin and Jim Gailey walked into R.H. Flint's office in Glendale, Mich. Although Flint Ink told her there was no problem with their soy ink, it only took one phone call to arrange that meeting with the president of the corporation.

"Everybody was getting fed up. [Their] ink was going to die on the vine," Sharen recalled.

Pressmen couldn't wash up their presses properly. The ink wasn't right. But it did have virtue, chiefly, the bright color. The printing industry wanted to save it.

At the end of an hour, the Browers agreed to sign a confidentiality agreement with Flint. After all, a patent on her soy ink formulation already was pending.

"You know Iowa. It's trust, trust, trust," Sharen said.

So she disclosed in a letter to Flint the precise formulation to increase runnability and decrease ruboff - two key hindrances to the development of a soy ink that would sustain itself in the marketplace among newspaper and other large-volume printers.

Flint wrote her a letter. In the words of her patent lawyer, Ray Niro of Chicago, "They told her to get lost. 'We know about ink,' they said."

Sharen thought Flint was going to do nothing with her formula.

It wouldn't work, Flint said.

But in August, 1990, Sharen spotted a story in Wallace's Farmer magazine. It said that a subsidiary of Flint, Sinclar and Ballantine, had created a brand new vegetable-based ink with low volatile organic compounds - VOCs - code word red in environmental language.

"The alarm bells went off. I thought that this must be wrong. It couldn't be. So I sent them a very polite letter: 'Gee, excuse me, but maybe we made some mistake here.' They wrote back and said this ink had absolutely nothing to do with me."

She went to her patent attorney, who told her that it would cost $600-900 to get lab tests on Flint Ink to compare with her formula. That wouldn't fly, she thought.

"Plus, I didn't want a fight," she said. "Some people get to pick their fights. Others get pulled in."

Flint was big. Rich. Lawyers.

Sharen Brower didn't know what to do. Her patent lawyer, Ed Sease, told her to wait until her patent was approved in Washington.

The Brower family loves to backpack. They wanted to get away from it all and were packing for an expedition when Ed Sease called in the summer of 1992. He said their patent was approved.

Sharen and daughter Jamie, 18, hugged and celebrated.

Formal notification came in August.

Following a method, they notified Flint that the Sharen Brower patent for printing ink - along with artists ink, leather dye, and other soy products - was approved.

A month later, Flint sued Sharen Brower for patent infringement.

"I thought that once we got the patent we were protected," Sharen said. "The reality is, the patent is only as good as what you can afford to enforce."

Ed Sease referred her to the Scavone Niro Law Firm in Chicago, one of the two top patent firms in the nation. They agreed to take her case on contingency. This involve investing hundreds of thousands of dollars in research and expert witnesses for a highly technical trial.

"I wondered: Who can stay with Flint? If it weren't for Ed Sease, I would have burned the patent and walked away," Sharen said. "And Arlin kept saying, just one more step. He carried me through."

Sharen Brower will not take credit back home, but neither will she argue with the logic: If soy ink was largely unrunnable, and thus applicable only in niche situations, before her discovery, her work then led to its mass market acceptance. And, the logic goes, Flint was first and best in soy ink, so it reaped tremendous profit from her innovation.

That's what her lawyers said, and that's what the jury bought.

Sharen Brower is the woman behind the man who made soy ink the leader in commercial printing.

Heady stuff, this.

Proving that point takes its toll.

Spring is the busy time for Arlin. That farmers would wait "gave me goosebumps," Sharen said. Jim Gailey had a practice to attend to. But he was there for the duration of the trial, too. People talk about whether $48.7 million - or $60 million - is appropriate. What is appropriate?

"The idea was not to build a mansion," Sharen said. "The idea was to make it worth my family's while to take this fight. When someone tells me something can't be done, I'll work twice as hard to make sure it is done. Just get outta my way."

Iowa Stubborn, they call it.

Flint, in its statement, insists that it did nothing wrong. "The company strongly disagrees that their ink formulas violate any agreement or infringe on her patent, issued in 1992.

"Time will tell how the case will affect the ink and printing industries as a whole. In the meantime, Flint Ink has a long-standing reputation for integrity, and we will continue to operate our business and serve our customers according to the highest ethical standards."

Ray Niro, Sharen's Chicago lawyer, said Flint was mean, arrogant and uncompromising.

The president of Flint had told Sharen she was in over her head, out of her league.

She thought so too, for awhile.

"I thought a lot about throwing it all in," she said.

And she wonders:

"How many little guys like me are out there, ready to be pounced on? There's a bully on the playground, and he says, 'It's mine, I want it, I take it, go away.'"

She advises people:Take notes, mail them to yourself for proof,. She talks like a lawyer now, noting that the trial was "bifurcated" (split in two)

"The eight jurors heard us and them. It was all on the table. They gave up their jobs and lives for a month with the patience of Job to give me my day in court. That's all I wanted. All I know about American justice is that it worked for me."

Jamie Brower intends to be a pre-law major at Buena Vista starting this fall. She tells her mom that she will not take the corporate side but will stand by the "little guy."

Shove all the lawyers and patents and rules aside, however, and Sharen Brower says that it all comes down to this: Flint Ink could have gotten off for a lot less (how much? A few thousand, maybe, with a nice hotel and lunch in Detroit?) six years ago. A far more complicated path was chosen.

"My intent was never to shut anybody down or stop manufacture. The idea was to make soy ink bigger and better. All I expected from them was a statement something like, 'If this takes off we'll figure something out.'"

Something was figured out. Since Flint's infringement was found to be willful, Judge Denise Paige Hood can triple a part of the damages to send the award over $60 million.

Sharen doesn't know what she'll do now. For certain, get to Wade's baseball games this summer. Talk with neighbors, thank all her friends and family for patience. Do a little art work, maybe fiddle around with ink some more.

If she does fiddle with ink, she will buy Flint.

"It's great stuff," she said.

After all, it bears her signature. At least a jury said so.

Home Page

News | Current Issue | Back Issues | Essays | Links

About the Progressive Populist | How to Subscribe | How to Contact Us

Copyright © 1995-1996 The Progressive Populist