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Patent attorneys don’t usually drive around in lowrider trucks. But San Francisco attorney Byron Cooper knows a thing or two about how these vehicles are designed. And while his 1986 Toyota 4Runner doesn’t exactly hug the ground, Cooper has spent hours replacing various parts to give the SUV more power. His tinkering came in handy while working on a recent patent case. Cooper, a partner at Townsend and Townsend and Crew, is representing Mike McGaughy, a Fresno auto parts dealer who invented a new kind of drop spindle — a device used to lower an automobile’s chassis. After McGaughy noticed that others were copying his spindle, he turned to Cooper’s firm to see if he could get a patent. The firm filed an application with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, which resulted in a patent being issued in March. On the same day, the firm sued Belltech Inc., a company that makes sport truck suspension products, for infringement. Cooper says McGaughy’s drop spindle differs from others on the market because it allows sport trucks to be lowered while keeping their original suspension and smooth ride. Indeed. the device won a design award from General Motors in 2003 for “most innovative product.” Belltech denies that it has infringed McGaughy’s patent. “We believe the patent, which is the subject of the suit, is either anticipated or made obvious in light of prior art and is therefore invalid,” says Mark Miller, a partner at Fresno’s Kimble MacMichael & Upton who is representing the company. Belltech’s Web site says the company “started the lowered sport truck craze with the award-winning Dropped Spindle.” McGaughy’s patent includes several Belltech brochures, catalogs and advertisements as reference material. Cooper says Belltech submitted this material to the patent office as prior art in an effort to prevent the patent from being issued. Disputes like McGaughy’s have become more common, Cooper adds, as the aftermarket auto parts industry has grown. “When people come out with an after-market auto part, other people copy it,” he says. “More clients are coming to us asking for patents on parts.” Brenda Sandburg is a senior writer for The Recorder, which publishes IP magazine.

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