A Jessamine County bee trap maker forced off Amazon and other websites hopes a federal judge will tell a competitor claiming patent infringement to buzz off.
Brian Robert Blazer of Heflin, Ala., claims that Chrisman Mill Farms LLC of Nicholasville infringed on his patented design of carpenter bee traps.
Blazer, who does business as Carpenter Bee Solutions, also alleges that Chrisman Mill Farms (not to be confused with Chrisman Mill Winery in Jessamine County) breached a one-year licensing contract and has not paid required royalties.
Chrisman Mill owner and manager Tony Robinson counters that his modified bee trap doesn’t infringe on Blazer’s patent. Blazer could not be reached for comment, and his attorney did not answer requests for an interview.
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At its peak in 2016, Robinson said Chrisman Mill Farms employed eight people in his Jessamine County woodshop and sold 35,000 traps through Amazon.com, Houzz.com and other online sites.
The litigation forced him to lay off his employees and Robinson said he now sells traps “in the hundreds” through his own website. The traps sell for $35 each in peak season and $25 during the off-season.
Robinson, 56, a Wisconsin native and Air Force veteran, said other trap makers across the United States have stopped building and selling their products for fear they’ll be sued by Blazer.
“Patent litigation is expensive, so people shy away from it and don’t stand up for their rights,” said Jim Francis, Robinson’s Lexington attorney.
The case illustrates how the Internet and supply-chain efficiency have allowed small-time entrepreneurs to sell products nationally and globally. But instead of behemoths like Microsoft and Google duking it out over royalties related to technology, this case involves two independent inventors fighting over a product that’s basically a hollow wood box with a jar.
Nevertheless, the opposing parties believe the potential sales volume justifies pushing forward in court.
“You have small players being able to compete on larger playing fields than ever before,” Francis said. “When you start shutting down e-commerce, what does that say to entrepreneurs?”
Before going into specifics about the litigation, here is a biology lesson.
Female carpenter bees chew and bore into wood to make nests. The nests usually have tunnels that are ½-inch wide and 6 to 10 inches deep and that are partitioned into chambers, each containing an egg and a ball of pollen that will serve as food for the larva.
Over a period of time, tunnels may extend as far as 10 feet into wood timbers. The bees cause damage to wooden structures by boring into timbers.
The bee traps made by Robinson look similar to a wood birdhouse with a glass jar on the bottom. A bee enters a hole, climbs up an angled tunnel and then falls into a jar from which the insect cannot escape. (Honeybees are not harmed by the trap because it has no pollen to attract them, Robinson said.)
Blazer received a U.S. patent for his traps in 2013. He has said he and his brother came up with the patented design.
In December 2015, Amazon.com sent an email to Robinson informing him that his product was infringing on an existing patent. Robinson said he drove to Blazer’s home in Alabama and met with Blazer and his girlfriend. Hoping to get off on the right foot, Robinson took them a bottle of Maker’s Mark bourbon.
“They assured me I would not be sued, complimented (me) on how well made our carpenter bee traps are and were interested in even buying them,” Robinson wrote on a crowd-funding website seeking to raise money for a “legal defense fund.”
A couple of weeks later Blazer and Robinson reached a one-year licensing agreement that permitted Robinson to sell his traps. The agreement also obligated Chrisman Mill Farms to pay royalties to Blazer for each trap sold.
“Although there wasn’t much money left over, it still allowed me to keep the doors open and keep a couple employees,” Robinson wrote.
Under the contract, Chrisman Mill Farms paid a $3 per-trap royalty to Blazer, which, according to a court document, amounted to $68,000 in royalties.
In addition, Blazer says he was supposed to receive a 51 percent ownership interest in Chrisman Mill Farms. Robinson said there was never any agreement for Blazer to have majority interest in Chrisman Mill Farms.
The one-year licensing agreement expired in December 2016. Because he no longer had a license, Robinson modified his bee trap in a manner to avoid the claims covered by Blazer’s patent.
The new trap, called Wood Bee Gone II, did not have a roof overhang over the entry hole. Chrisman Mill sold its modified trap through sites such as Amazon.com.
Nevertheless, Blazer told Chrisman Mill as well as Amazon.com and other sites that the modified trap infringed on his patent. Those companies dropped the modified trap from their sites because they didn’t want to sell a product hobbled by an infringement claim.
Robinson and Francis have asked U.S. District Court Judge Danny Reeves to impose an injunction that would force Blazer to withdraw cease-and-desist letters. That would allow Chrisman Mill Farms to again sell through Amazon.com and other websites.
As he waits for a resolution in his court case, Robinson has found another unusual product to sell: hedge apples, the yellowish-green fruit from Osage orange trees.
Some people buy them for floral arrangements, while others believe that they can repel spiders or that they have medicinal properties. Seeds from the hedge apples can be made into an oil used by the cosmetics industry.
Best of all, there are no patents on hedge apples.