Inventor Behaving Badly (2011 Jul)

by Barry A. Liebling

When a clever man invents a valuable and useful device he deserves praise. But if he deliberately uses coercion to get his way his behavior spoils everything.

Steve Gass is a patent attorney who also has a PhD in physics. Dr Gass has been a woodworking enthusiast since he was a child, and in 1999 developed an ingenious safety mechanism for table saws. With two partners who are also attorneys Dr Gass founded SawStop a company that manufactures table saws. According to the company website it makes “the #1 selling cabinet saw in the market.”

The SawStop device adds about $100 to the cost of a conventional table saw. It has a safety brake that senses when the blade is in contact with conductive material such as a human finger. If a finger – or something similar such as a hot dog – touches the moving saw blade the device stops the blade and retracts it in less than one-hundredth of a second. The injury to the operator’s finger – or to the hot dog used in SawStop demonstrations – is only a minor scratch.

There is no question that the SawStop device has considerable value. A table saw that is fool-resistant and will spare the finger of a careless operator has considerable merit. The empirical proof is that SawStop products are apparently selling briskly. It is plausible that insurance companies might charge lower premiums to industrial concerns that use safer equipment such as SawStop table saws. I know that if I were using a table saw I would prefer to work with one that is least likely to cause me personal injury.

But there are limits to the value that SawStop brings to a woodworker. While the invention is innovative and adroit, it is not the only way to minimize the danger of working with wood saws. There are proven low-tech methods that are also effective. Guard rails that prevent fingers from getting too close to the saw blade have been in use for a long time. Adhering to strict safety rules in industrial and educational institutions usually results in zero-injury statistics. Because of prudent practices in the wood shop class when I was in high school, no teacher or student lost a finger to a table saw.

Dr Gass is ambitious and would like to see his SawStop mechanism used more widely. According to BusinessWeek he approached the largest manufacturers of table saws more than ten years ago and tried to sell them a license to his patent. For unknown reasons, the SawStop team and the leading manufacturers failed to strike a deal. Perhaps the selling price was higher than the major companies were willing to pay. Or perhaps the established manufacturers reckoned that their existing safety efforts were sufficient. To this day only SawStop manufacturers saws with its safety brake.

What should Dr Gass do if he does not succeed in selling his license to other manufacturers? He has a wide variety of legitimate actions. Of course, he can expand his existing SawStop company. The website proclaims that sales are good and that customers are pleased with the quality of SawStop products. Surely there are many additional woodworking people who will be interested in obtaining the benefits of SawStop.

Suppose Dr Gass is intent on licensing his patent. He could go back to the large manufacturers with a more generous deal. Perhaps his proposition was not sufficiently compelling. With a public relations campaign he could make his hot dog demonstration widely known and motivate consumers to request SawStop technology when they buy woodworking machinery.

Of course, there are limits to what Dr Gass should do. No matter how much he believes in the SawStop safety brake he has no right to use force to get his way. It is obvious that it would not be acceptable for him to give rival saw manufacturers an ultimatum: either buy a license to my product or I will shut you down. That is the kind of behavior displayed by a gangster with no respect for individual rights.

And even as it is unconscionable for Dr Gass to act coercively, it is equally outrageous for him to use a surrogate to do his dirty work for him. According to BusinessWeek Dr Gass has been lobbying the “U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission to require all table saws…to be equipped with SawStop or a similar safety device.” Apparently the SawStop business model is that mutual consent is optional when striking a deal. The company will use the irresistible hammer of government if a potential customer does not agree to the SawStop proposal.

It is not yet resolved how, if at all, the Consumer Product Safety Commission will act. Industry critics of SawStop have complained that if its technology becomes a legal requirement table saws will become more expensive for everyone and SawStop will reap a tremendous windfall in licensing fees. The fundamental travesty goes beyond the money. SawStop, which should be an example of astute entrepreneurship, is playing the part of a corporatist bully. Making a lot of money is perfectly acceptable if you deal by mutual consent, but there is nothing right about extorting wealth through force.

*** See other entries at in “Monthly Columns.” ***

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