Patents: Wesley Thaddeus Adams III

By Edward Martin

Belmont Textile Machinery was at one end of the spectrum. When Jeff Rhyne, president of the Mount Holly company, discovered that French competitor Superba had developed a machine nearly identical to his to dye carpet yarn, more than company pride was at stake. “Innovation is our lifeline. We have to always be on the offensive and use patents to keep our edge.”

Belmont contacted Adams Evans PA, a patent, trademark and copyright law firm in Charlotte. Founder Thad Adams took the case. A federal jury in Charlotte ruled in September 2000 that Superba was using Belmont’s design and awarded the Mount Holly company $1.6 million. “Thad really, sincerely thought our company was wronged,” Rhyne says. “It was a big case, and we were the underdogs.”

Annie is at the other end of the spectrum. A true underdog, the Adams family’s cocker spaniel dragged her floppy ears in her food when eating. So Adams put sandwich bags on them, linking them with a twist-tie over her head. As a lark, he patented the idea. “It slid through the Patent Office like it was on roller skates.”

Patent law, the Raleigh native says, is like that. It is complex — patent lawyers must have technical degrees and pass a special bar exam — and a client’s future can ride on a patent application or the outcome of an infringement lawsuit. Often, he says, cases “are like trying to untangle a plate of spaghetti.” But as in Patent No. 4,964,264 — protective ear bags for dogs — patent law can be entertaining. “The people we deal with are almost always optimistic, forward-thinking and honest. And for the most part, they pay their bills.”

Typically, he says, he’ll spend most of his time in the field, with the client, rather than in Adams Evans’ 21st-floor office. Ultimately, Adams or one of the firm’s other four patent lawyers will be required to explain the client’s idea to a patent examiner. “That’s why patent lawyers are required to have a technical background,” he says. His is in textiles.

Adams took an early interest in law. His father was a traveling hardware salesman and, later, regional manager for a wholesale-hardware company. His mother was a homemaker who would let him go with her on shopping trips. “I would go to what they called industrial court and sit in the courtroom while she shopped.”

In law school, a student a year ahead of him landed a job as a patent lawyer. “Once I found out there was such a thing, the connection was easily made,” he says. Adams began practicing in Charlotte in 1971 for a large, established patent-law firm but left in 1975 to join two friends — Bill Echols and Robert Purser — in forming what is now Echols & Purser PLLC. In 1978, he created what is today Adams Evans PA.

Among clients are B/E Aerospace in Winston-Salem, which makes nearly half the world’s airliner seats; General Electric Transportation in Cleveland, which makes aircraft engines; Cyril Bath in Monroe, which makes metal-forming machines for aviation; Lance, the Charlotte snack maker; and Carolinas Medical Center.

Adams sees no sign that demand for patent law will diminish. In global commerce, the piracy and counterfeiting of goods is growing. While most know that counterfeit DVDs, compact discs and similar entertainment merchandise are a problem, less publicized are counterfeit auto and airplane parts. But most disputes, Adams says, stem from mistakes or misunderstandings. “Unlike some areas of law, where you tend to deal with people at their worst — criminal law, for example — we tend to see people at their best.”