Flash of Genius: A Review

Flash of Genius is a movie about patent infringement. It is the story of one man with a big idea whose life's work was stolen by a big, bad auto company. It is the tale of an obsessive dedication to the pursuit of  justice, and how it can destroy a marriage. It is about the price of recognition and whether it is worth it. But we can also look at it another way: it's a story about bullying.

Image Credit: Freebase
Image Credit: Freebase

Robert Kearns invented the intermittent windshield wiper. He offered it to the Ford Motor Company. They decided not to buy his invention. They stole it instead.

Kearns spent most of his life fighting to get Ford to admit that the invention was his. They offered him many large settlements with the proviso that he keep silent about the theft, but he refused them all, and continued to fight relentlessly for justice to be done.

In the process, he lost his wife, and to some extent the respect of his children, and lived a very difficult and lonely existence. Although in time his children did rally round him and supported him in his legal battle, his wife never returned.

So the question is: was it worth it?

Unites states Supreme Court Associate Justice William O. Douglas, who coined the phrase "Flash of Genius" in his opinion 14 U.S. 84 (1941) Image Credit: Wikipedia
Unites states Supreme Court Associate Justice William O. Douglas, who coined the phrase "Flash of Genius" in his opinion 14 U.S. 84 (1941) Image Credit: Wikipedia

The source of the phrase "Flash of Genius"

The phrase "flash of genius" was coined by United States Supreme Court Associate Justice William O. Douglas. In Cuno Engineering v. Automatic Devices, 314 U.S. 84 (1941), he ruled: "The new device, however useful it may be, must reveal the flash of creative genius, not merely the skill of the calling."

The "flash of genius" test was eventually rejected for a more staid formulation in the patent law by a standard of non-obviousness. However, it remains an effective way of considering what entitles someone to a patent. It is not the hard work that went into the discovery that matters. It is the ingeniousness of the device.

I will return to this point a little later.

Greg Kinnear as Robert Kearns

Greg Kinnear is perfect in the role of Robert Kearns. The last time I saw him he was playing the long-suffering Luddite boyfriend of Kathleen Kelly in You've Got Mail. He was excellent in that role, too, although the part was very different. A man who prefers an IBM Selectric type-writer to a laptop is probably going to dislike an intermittent windshield wiper, when he could be perfectly happy with the old-fashioned model that has only two settings, on and off.

Kinnear's low-key performance gives Flash of Genius a realistic edge and prevents the movie from becoming overly sentimental in its portrayal of what has been dubbed by many reviewers the usual "David versus Goliath" plot that Hollywood loves so much.

Stand By Your Man

Lauren Graham as the Disloyal Wife

Believe it or not, I didn't discover Flash of Genius because I was looking for a movie about patent law or even intellectual property law in general. I wasn't thinking: hey, I'd like to see a movie about intermittent windshield wipers! I wasn't looking for a story about the little guy versus the big corporation. And, no, I wasn't looking for a movie starring Greg Kinnear.

I missed Gilmore Girls, and I was looking for something in which Lauren Graham appeared since that series went off the air. Well, in this movie, Lauren Graham gets to play the disloyal wife.

Now, don't get me wrong, we're not talking infidelity. At least not in the narrow sense in which that word has come to be used. I'm talking about disloyalty in the real sense. A husband is counting on his wife to support him in the great trial of his life, and she does not stand by her man.

When I was watching Lauren Graham in Flash of Genius, the lyrics to the Tammy Wynette song immediately came to mind. "...And if you love him, be proud of him, 'cause after all, he's just a man." The problem here was that he wasn't just a man. He was Robert Kearns, the inventor of the intermittent windshield wiper -- a man with a dream who was not willing to give up.

The wife was portrayed as loving, nurturing, a good mother and a "decent person", who was not willing to spend her entire life fighting the good fight. And she was not the only one.

One by one, all his friends deserted him.

Why does that happen? When we stand up to fight against a bully, why is it our friends tend to disappear?

What Kearns Wanted -- And What Ford Wanted

To give the Ford Motor Company credit, it was not really their plan not to pay Kearns. This is something that you're not going to see discussed in many other places. Ford intended to pay for the invention, and they were willing to pay quite generously, right from the start.

Kearns, for his part, was not fighting just for money. After he brought suit, he was offered millions in settlement money, and he turned them down.

So what was this fight really about? Like most struggles, it was about control.

Robert Kearns had a dream, and it didn't just involve inventing. He really wanted to be a manufacturer, just like Ford. He wanted to open the Kearns Company, and he planned to sell windshield wipers to all the major auto manufacturers.

The Ford Motor Company did not want to count on an inexperienced supplier. They would gladly have paid him in outright fees and royalties, but they wanted to be the ones making the product. When they saw that he would not be "reasonable", they took by stealth what they could not get by negotiating. They understood they would eventually have to pay for the use of the product. They just were not willing for Kearns to dictate the terms.

In other words, they by-passed his right to withhold consent.

Why People Didn't Support Kearns

Most people work for a living. Most people are not inventors. An inventor with a patent is not paid for his labor. He is paid for the ingeniousness of his thought process and the idea that it produces. Once a patent holder holds a patent, he is just like someone who owns a gold-mine. He is a property owner, only the property he owns is not material. It's intellectual property.

Almost everyone in Detroit, from the highest auto executives to the lowliest autoworkers, was paid a salary for working hours. A dollar amount was given in return for their time. But Robert Kearns wanted more. He wanted to be an owner and to pay other people for their time and to be paid for the products they manufactured under his supervision and control. He thought that by owning the patent he could dictate the terms under which it would be used.

People -- his friends, his wife, his colleagues -- did not really identify with Kearns' struggle, because it was not like any struggle they would ever face. Why was he turning down all that money? Why didn't he face reality? Maybe, secretly, they didn't even think he deserved the right to withhold consent.

After all, people need intermittent windshield wipers. What right had he to dictate the terms under which the public would get them?

I don't think this a David versus Goliath story. I think it's more like Atlas shrugging. Robert Kearns was not the little guy fighting the big corportation. He was not Everyman. He was a great man fighting the multitude of small men for the right to have the importance of his contribution and his personal sovereignty recognized.

What do you think? Who was right? Robert Kearns or everybody else?

(c) 2010 Aya Katz

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Comments 22 comments

drbj profile image

drbj 6 years ago from south Florida

Aya - this is a fascinating and well-written account of Robert Kearns and his struggle. I had the good fortune to see this film and Greg Kinnear's portrayal of the protagonist was realistic and emotional.


Cagsil profile image

Cagsil 6 years ago from USA or America

Absolutely a great hub. It was very fascinating to learn. Thank you very much for sharing. :)


Aya Katz profile image

Aya Katz 6 years ago from The Ozarks Author

Drbj, thanks! I agree. Greg Kinnear was perfect in this part!


Aya Katz profile image

Aya Katz 6 years ago from The Ozarks Author

Cagsil, thanks! I thought you might like this.


Sandyspider profile image

Sandyspider 6 years ago from Wisconsin, USA

Sounds fascinating.


Aya Katz profile image

Aya Katz 6 years ago from The Ozarks Author

Sandyspider, thanks! Let me know what you think if you see the movie.


maven101 profile image

maven101 6 years ago from Northern Arizona

Aya...Your intelligent critique of this man's struggle to pursue his dreams, despite overwhelming personal loss and financial temptation, is brilliant in its conclusion. This is a story of one man's personal integrity, of remaining true to one's self, despite the soft tyranny of lost love and friendship...

Friendship, unlike intermittent windshield wipers, is either on or off, rainy days or not...As humans, we tend to judge others by our own values, and when those values conflict with ours, we will deny their viability...Kearns' value system was unique, much like his " flash of genius "...That rare individual that stands on principle, even against the tug of immense wealth, even at the loss of family and friends...Remarkable...

Thank you for this most interesting and thought-provoking Hub...Whether you are writing about ants, apes, or people, you are always a captivating and intriguing writer of the first rank...Thanks, Larry


Aya Katz profile image

Aya Katz 6 years ago from The Ozarks Author

Larry, wow! What a great comment! I'm not sure that I agree with you about friendship, but that's a sentence well worth reading: "Friendship, unlike intermittent windshield wipers, is either on or off, rainy days or not."

I do agree with what you said about Kearns: "That rare individual that stands on principle, even against the tug of immense wealth, even at the loss of family and friends..."


Michael Jay profile image

Michael Jay 6 years ago

Wow! This hub is amazing. I never heard about this movie before, but now, you have given a new knowledge here. Thank you very much for sharing. This is really interesting.


De Greek profile image

De Greek 6 years ago from UK

Such an intersting story. I am off to get get the film :-)


wandererh profile image

wandererh 6 years ago from Singapore

Injustices are done to us everyday of our lives. I don't think it is a matter of fighting every time an injustice is done as we'd spend our whole lives fighting. I think it is a matter of choosing the fight worth fighting. To Robert Kearns, that was a fight worth fighting. :)


Aya Katz profile image

Aya Katz 6 years ago from The Ozarks Author

Michael Jay, thanks! Maybe more people will hear about the movie this way.


Aya Katz profile image

Aya Katz 6 years ago from The Ozarks Author

De Greek, thanks! Let me know what you think after you've seen it.


Aya Katz profile image

Aya Katz 6 years ago from The Ozarks Author

Wandererh, you're right. Not every slight or unfair action is worth getting all upset about. We have to pick our battles, and to Robert Kearns, this was a fight worth fighting.


Cheeky Girl profile image

Cheeky Girl 6 years ago from UK and Nerujenia

This sounds like an interesting film and worth seeing. Being a Greg Kinnear fan, most likely I will go and see it. Thanks for the recommendation! Cheers!


Aya Katz profile image

Aya Katz 6 years ago from The Ozarks Author

Cheeky Girl, wow, a Greg Kinnear fan! In that case, you will probably have even more insight into this film. Please come back and share your impressions after you've seen it!


sheila b. profile image

sheila b. 6 years ago

It seems I'm alone in my feelings about this man. You used the word control - he wanted control. In reality, he was willing to lose his wife, children and friends in his quest for control. I don't admire that.


Aya Katz profile image

Aya Katz 6 years ago from The Ozarks Author

Sheila B., thanks for sharing your honest opinion. I value that more than I can say. I believe that real friendships and real debates come from daring to say what's on your mind.

I saw an interview with Lauren Graham in which she defended her character's position that "the family is more important." But... it was the wife who broke up the family. Kearns was a family man. He loved his wife and children and he wanted to stay married. He was hoping that the family could support him in his fight.

In fact, while Kearns lost his wife for good, he did not lose the children. They came back to him and helped him with his trial.

I think it all goes back to this: "I could not love thee dear so much loved I not honor more."


i scribble 6 years ago

I had heard this story, but not the important details that the Ford Co. didn't set out to rip him off, but eventually took that route. I need to see the movie to form informed opinions on this particular case.

I've dabbled in "inventing" (board games, ideas for dental devices)just enough to learn that patents are unaffordable to the average person, board games are not patentable, and other generally discouraging facts. I have read that most inventions never see the light of day due to the huge obstacle of getting a patent. And getting a patent is no guarantee that anyone will want to produce/buy your product. We need reform of patent laws, but only a few inventor-types seem to care about this issue.

I will look for this movie. Thanks for an informative hub on a relevant issue.


Aya Katz profile image

Aya Katz 6 years ago from The Ozarks Author

I-Scribble, thanks for your comment.

The big issue in every struggle, it seems to me, is everyone's right to say "no". Whether the facts involve out and out rape or just a stolen idea, the issue is the same. It's not just about material things like physical abuse or not getting paid. It's about the right to take all your marbles and go home.

Many ideas are not patentable. A board game can be protected by a combination of trademark and copyright claims.

Let me know what you think once you have seen the movie!


shibashake profile image

shibashake 6 years ago

Hello Aya,

I have been going through all your Bow blog entries. They are all very interesting. Each one could probably be made into several hubs!

I really liked your Atlas comparison above. It reminded me of Ayn Rand and brought into focus the struggle between the rights of the individual vs. the rights of the many.

There is probably no right answer here - but I think we achieve a balance of sorts in our struggle to find the 'right' answer and perhaps that is the best answer there is.


Aya Katz profile image

Aya Katz 6 years ago from The Ozarks Author

Shibashake,

I'm glad you're enjoying the blog. It takes a lot less work to write a blog entry than it does to write a hub, as all I really have to do is jot down what happened.

I'm also pleased that you got what I was trying to say about Kearns and his struggle. A lot of times the real issue gets buried, because even people who are sympathetic to Kearns' cause (or the cause of individualism in general), are afraid to come right out and name the issue and own it.

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