Fred and Natasha Ruckel (a husband and wife team), live in the Catskills Mountains in NY, from which they run their boutique agency – RuckSackNY.
As it happens, and to cut straight to the purpose of this story, Fred had always dreamt of becoming an inventor. Ever since he was young, he’d pull apart gadgets, toys and anything he could get his hands on. He’d then reassemble the item, he’d visualize different applications of dismantled objects, then his mind would buzz with ideas of his own.
Fast forward to Valentine’s Day 2015. Natasha was sitting, composing tunes on the piano, Fred sat listening to Natasha, and, as she tinkled the ivories, their cat Yoda, just six months old, played with her toys under their wrinkled up drum rug.
The Ruckel’s cat Yoda playing with a rippled drum rug. Feb 2015
Fred listened to alluring melodies of the piano music and observed Yoda, as she poked her paws at her toys in the carpet wrinkles, hooking her play-mice up with her nails, flipping them in the air, then pushing them back under the ripples of the drum rug.
While Yoda was engrossed in her game of ‘cat and mouse’, Fred declared: “We’re going to make the Ripple Rug”.
That aha moment, borne from observing Yoda at play, was the start of a million-dollar idea. Believe or not, “Ripple Rug”, the description that sprung from Fred’s mouth, at that moment of realization, remains the name of the product today!
After a couple of days of procrastination, Fred hopped into the car, drove to a home center to purchase some different carpet samples and sticky hook-tape strips. He got home, and fabricated a very, rough Ripple Rug. Let’s not be mistaken here, the hook-tape didn’t stick, the carpet fell apart, the edges frayed, strings were hanging off the edges, carpet fuzzies spread like confetti, the carpet slid across the floor. It wasn’t exactly cat safe. Even with those faults, Yoda expressed an interest in the prototypes!
It was at this time, Natasha decided to add input, not only with the design and construction, but she also felt that it was worth spending the time and effort to bring the invention to market. After all, it would be fun to market a cat product. Wouldn’t it?
The next few months, included feverish sourcing of alternative materials, construction trials, carpet science research, cat product behavioral analysis, the list goes on…
As newbie inventors, Fred and Natasha were overwhelmed with the pitfalls and difficulties of sourcing raw materials, safety testing, identifying contract manufacturers, product consistency, packaging and shipping costs.
Fred and Natasha didn’t know a lot of people they could talk to about manufacturing a new product. There were so many moving parts. As an inventor with a nascent idea, the Ruckels didn’t have any experienced advisers to talk too, nor significant funding. They would have to use their own savings and their own experiences to get the Ripple Rug to the mass market.
Effective, free advice is hard to find. Following a conversation with a family member, it was recommended that Fred should apply for a patent. It was suggested that if he could afford it, he should pay for expedited processing of the patent.
Fred looked into the submission and filing of a patent, he learned (from Google searches), that creating a ‘Provisional Patent’ would be a good starting point.
TIP: Applying for a ‘Provisional Patent’ comes with several benefits for a newbie inventor, namely:
You have one year, to not only refine your invention, but to also test your product viability and market desirability.
It establishes an official USPTO filing date.
You may use “Patent Pending” officially with all of your product communications.
The Ruckels set about writing their patent. Natasha purchased several (scarily expensive) and rather intimidatingly thick books about writings patents. Learning from the tips included in patent guides, she went online at google.com/patents
and searched for patented cat-products. She read the patents, compared them with suggestions outlined in the big, heavy-books, then attempted to compose a patent for the Ripple Rug.
Natasha felt out of her depth, as she had never written anything in such patent ‘jargon’ before. She chuckled to herself with the number of times the words “embodiments”, and “plurality” were used. When it came to writing ‘claims’ (arguably, the most important part of the patent application), Natasha felt that a patent-writing lawyer was needed to assist in drafting effective claims.
As it turns out, the claims became pivotal in obtaining a patent. Several interviews with the Ruckel’s patent lawyer and the patent examiner were needed to refine the claims.
TO NOTE: Claims form the basis of any patent protection should you need to protect yourself against infringers.
TIP: Do apply for a patent as soon as you can, if you can afford expedited processing, it’s worth it, it can help reduce the time needed to get to your application in the hands of the examiner.
For the Ruckels, obtaining their patent was a lengthy process. The details here are summarized, so as to be able to focus on the larger, more important discoveries the Ruckels uncovered.
Back to the story…the Ruckels filed their Provisional Patent and created a Kickstarter Campaign to test their idea with a bigger audience. However, their big break came when Fred entered a competition to appear on NBC ‘TODAY Show Next Big Thing”. The Ruckels made the cut and were selected as finalists on the Show.
Fred and Natasha Ruckel on NBC’s Today Show. September 2015
Fred and Natasha were over-joyed to be selected to appear on NBC. They knew that this was their target audience, this had the potential to propel the Ripple Rug to the masses.
Unbeknown to Fred and Natasha, their appearance on NBC (which was run in conjunction with QVC), would result in a national TV campaign run by deep-pocketed counterfeiters, with the aim of creating a Ripple Rug knock-off.
It wasn’t until February 2017 that the Ruckels were made aware, by their friend Dan Shultes, of a television commercial that featured a product identical to their own, named “The Purr N Play”.
The Ruckels were in disbelief. Their beloved Ripple Rug had been knocked-off. “The product was exactly the same as our Ripple Rug” Fred recalls, “Every feature, everything was identical”. Having worked in the television and advertising industry for over twenty years Fred decided to analyze the video of the Purr N Play in closer detail.
Fred stepped through the video frame-by-frame, until he came across several frames, in which a cute black kitten (playing and having a jolly good time), rolled the top carpet away to reveal the Ripple Rug woven label.
It was at this point, the Ruckel’s realized, that not only were the counterfeiters trying to sell a knock-off, but they also had the audacity to use the actual Ripple Rug in the Purr N Play commercial.
TIP: When manufacturing a new product, create distinct branding, that’s prominently displayed on your product, or use other specific features/patterns that are more expensive to reproduce. This will help identify your product should counterfeiters decide to use/feature your product to help sell their own cheap knock-off.
Here began a several-month long investigation. The Ruckels were easily able to find the Purr N Play website. Listed at the bottom of the homepage, was the name of the company that built the website – Digital Target Marketing.
As it turns out, Digital Target Marketing (at the time), were experts at creating websites for Direct Response Advertising, and were used by many ‘As Seen On TV’ organizations and other US-based DRTV companies. There’s a good chance if a knock-off of your product has been copied in the past, that the folks at Digital Target Marketing may have been paid by third-party parasites, to create a website for the cheapo twenty-buck version of your beloved product.
Fred contacted Digital Target Marketing directly, needless to say, it wasn’t easy to find a phone number or a contact that he could communicate with in person. However, persistence pays, many, many phone calls later, Fred’s efforts finally got him into communication with the owner of the company. The owner at Digital Target Marketing finally gave-up the true identity of the Purr N Play counterfeiter, a person by the name of Ron Steblea of Rutledge & Bapst. This didn’t happen overnight, so in the interim, Fred and Natasha continued their investigations, in order to find the ‘producer’ of the Purr N Play video.
Fred and Natasha continued to analyze the Purr N Play video. They were looking for other clues that would help them identify the studio, or the middle-aged women who provided testimonials in the Purr N Play TV Commercial.
Natasha recalls how disappointed she was, that two seemingly cat-loving women would lie, claiming that: ‘their cats loved the Purr N Play’. It made Natasha’s blood boil, she wished that, if she could ever meet those women in person, she’d share with them how upsetting, unfair and dishonest their actions were.
Driven by their disgust with the bad players, Fred and Natasha started searching for “shopping channel” type studios. The Purr N Play commercial was clearly shot in a studio-shopping-style set-up, they decided to focus their efforts on finding that particular set.
Natasha searched online for rentable ‘studios’, with similar set-ups. While Fred searched through vast numbers of emails, that included pictures of studio sets, sent to him by DRTV companies, looking to sell their services.
While it was a long and frustrating process, Fred finally stumbled upon an email from a company named The Bargain Show. The Bargain Show were soliciting inventors, in order to offer their services, they included pictures and examples of what they had to offer.
TIP: As an inventor, you’ll be courted by many different companies offering services and silver bullets to turn your invention into a multi-million-dollar seller. Chances are that you’ll pay a significant chunk, for a mediocre video and cheap one o’clock-in-the-morning TV ad placements on obscure TV channels. Sadly, these rarely result in raging sales. Resist, the temptation, don’t buy into the hype. This is how ‘As Seen on TV’ becomes ‘As Stolen on TV’
The Ruckels managed to track the Bargain Show back to a company in Springfield, Missouri named Opfer Communications. It so happened that the Bargain Show was located (and a large share of the company owned by Scott Opfer) at a production company called Opfer Communications. Visiting the Opfer Communications website, Facebook page confirmed that several other product commercials had all been shot in the same studio set as the Purr N Play commercial.
As you can imagine, Fred contacted Scott Opfer of Opfer Communications on numerous occasions, but got no response, just crickets, Scott Opfer went into hiding and never came out. (His legal defense – silence is golden!?) It so happened that after leaving several messages with Scott Opfer, Fred did receive a call from Ron Steblea of Rutledge and Bapst, the main instigator of the Purr N Play (as well as a significant number of other knock-offs, more about these later). Curious timing perhaps? As it turns out, Scott Opfer contacted Ron about Fred’s inquiries. Needless to say the conversation between Ron Steblea and Fred didn’t last very long.
Natasha and Fred continued their investigations. As a producer, familiar with preparing for shoots, Natasha decided to search for casting calls for both middle-aged women and cats. While going through the Facebook feed of Opfer Communications and posts by their employees responsible for casting calls, Natasha came across a post requesting ‘a litter of kittens who would like to be stars in front of camera’.
Natasha’s investigations uncovered not only the kittens featured in the Purr N Play commercial, but also the two women who delivered the testimonials. One of the testimonial providers turned out to be Opfer’s Producer Krissi Bernhardi. Yes – an actual employee of Opfer Communication provided a fraudulent testimonial. It makes you wonder how many of these testimonials are real these days? What type of unethical production company uses their own employees as ‘genuine’ spokespersons for knock-off products?
Opfer’s own producer, Krissi Bernhardi appearing and providing a testimonial for the knock-off DRTV Purr N Play commercial.
In the mean-time Fred looked into laws protecting inventors and the types of organizations that would help a small business, with the burden of legal costs from a lawsuit against infringers.
Natasha was also curious if the other products featured on the Bargain Show website were knock-offs. Having conducted significant searches using Google and in particular Amazon, Natasha was able to identify similar products to those featured on the Bargain Show. These products with different names and were seemingly created by American ‘mom and pop’ inventors.
Natasha found what she believed to be the original inventors’ websites and then gave the information to Fred so that he might follow up and contact those people in person.
One of the knock-off products featured on The Bargain Show website was the Spyder Sprinkler. The original product, The Noodlehead Sprinkler was invented by Randy Cooper. However, when Fred reached out to speak to Randy through the contact information provided on the Noodlehead website, Fred was saddened to learn that Randy had passed away a few years prior. Randy’s widow – Marlene, is to this day, convinced that the battle to uncover and stop the counterfeiters led to Randy’s decline in health.
Fred continued to reach out to other inventor’s whose products had been copied and then featured on The Bargain Show. Some inventors weren’t even aware that The Bargain Show was selling knock-offs of their product and others, on discovering this news, provided Fred with other information to help his investigation.
In March 2017 SnugglyCat Inc. filed a lawsuit against Rutledge & Bapst. As is the case, with a large percentage of unscrupulous individuals: they’ll deny everything, delay decisions, avoid answering queries, and flat out lie while dragging the proceedings on with the goal of bleeding inventor’s resources. A lawsuit is costly, both emotionally and financially while consuming all your time.
The bad guys have deep pockets, they use funding from the profits of selling knock-offs, or they buy hefty insurance policies, that unbelievably fund the defense of their illegal activities. As a small business, the toll you pay can be prohibitive. It may even seem to many, that the justice system defends ‘he who has the biggest purse strings’. That doesn’t seem like justice for the newbie inventor, whose idea and consequently sales have been stolen by would be thieves hiding in plain sight under the anonymity of the internet.
Throughout Fred and Natasha’s investigations, similar patterns emerged. Companies known as ‘feeders’, sourced products (i.e. other inventor’s products), test marketed them, then if they proved to have interest from the consumer targets, they would create a marketing campaign and national TV ads. The feeders would ‘license’ the knock-off products to ‘marketers’, who then go on to sell the product on Amazon, in catalogs (on and offline), using DTRV and in the ‘As Seen On TV’ section in big box stores.
For the purposes of this story we’ll focus on the Ruckel’s example, but this has been happening to many other newbie inventors too.
The Ruckel’s discovered that just one month after launching their product on the Today Show (September 2015), one of Rutledge & Bapst’s employees, Laurie Bieber purchased a Ripple Rug from QVC, as in her words “ It’s more anonymous that way”. (QVC was NBC’s partner for the “Today’s Next Big Thing’ competition). Laurie Bieber purchased subsequent Ripple Rugs from QVC for several purposes, namely: to send to a Chinese Manufacturer to make a knock-off, to use in pictures and the television commercial of their knock-off the Purr N Play.
Email from Laurie Bieber, advising her colleague Jessica Wickers that purchasing a Ripple Rug is more anonymous via QVC.
Having identified a potential ‘hot invention’, Rutledge & Bapst then checked to see if a patent exists. With most newbie inventors the product doesn’t have a patent or is patent pending. This removes significant risk from the infringer of having to pay anything out if sued.
TIP: Other steps should be carried out to help protect your product from the start; such as, filing for copyright, trademarks and at the very least, a provisional patent.
In the meantime, another team member of Rutledge & Bapst, Jessica Wickers, starting working closely with Digital Target Marketing to create a test website for the Purr N Play. This site used pictures of the Ruckel’s cat Yoda playing on the Ripple Rug that Fred and Natasha had shot for the Ripple Rug website as well as their QVC product listing. We have actual emails showing our pictures as attachments being sent to Digital Target Marketing, who then digitally removed our trademark to use on their fake website. This test website was hidden from internet bots, so it could never be found and cataloged in a Google search for example. The purpose of this test Purr N Play website was to direct recipients of an email blast to the site with the goal of getting them to place an order for the Purr N Play.
Infringing website, using the Ruckel’s images (featuring Yoda), and the Ripple Rug’s marketing language to sell the Purr N Play knock-off.
The email blast was sent to a targeted audience of over 960,000 people. The recipients would visit the Purr N Play website, where they would seem pictures of Yoda loving her Ripple Rug and read all the marketing and language that Fred and Natasha created for their Ripple Rug product.
Fred and Natasha had no idea that this was happening. Essentially this scenario was now in play – almost a million people thinking ‘what a great product’ at only a bargain price-tag of $20 each, with a second for free, with just an additional handling fee. (The Ripple Rug sells for $40 each).
Should anyone come across the Ripple Rug thereafter, they would most certainly consider the price to be much steeper than the Purr N Play. It’s hard to quantify the impact this would have had on Ripple Rug sales, because as a new company, there was no sales history to cross-reference, only continued growth until this caper took place.
Fred and Natasha continued to push the sales of the Ripple Rug. It soon become a number one best seller on Amazon, as well as a most wished for product. The sales were growing significantly and Christmas 2016 was on track to be a best seller with record sales.
Coming up to Black Friday however sales diminished and it wasn’t until Natasha was looking closely at their Amazon listing that she noticed all but one of the photographs had been removed. The accompanying text and most of their bullets had also been removed. Natasha asked Fred why he had removed so much information?
Of course Fred hadn’t removed anything, but that certainly would explain why sales had diminished. Another ‘seller’ took control of their listing, sabotaging it by removing all the pictures, graphics and all descriptive bullets and information.
The Ruckels did send a subpoena in 2017 to Amazon, asking them to share the information of the vendor that took control of their listing. Of course it was a fake business, with an incorrect business address and the bank information was seemingly a pre-paid anonymous credit card. Whoever was sabotaging their listing had a reason for doing so.
One of the bad guys’ employees, Steve McCaffrey (of Rutledge & Bapst), who was fully involved in the Ripple Rug knock-off caper, touted himself as an ‘Amazon Marketplace Manager’. When looking at Mr. McCaffrey’s LinkedIn profile, it outlines his ‘skills’ of being to create a successfully selling product through an Amazon listing, however, it’s written smoothly, in salesman speak. Essentially Mr. McCaffrey is fully versed in how-to manipulate a listing on Amazon. Steve McCaffrey was also found selling the knock-off Spyder Sprinkler on his Amazon store. Mysterious? Coincidental? You the audience can decide…
Back to the web-test…The web-test for the Purr N Play product performed exceptionally well. Why wouldn’t it? The Ruckel’s product, photographs and descriptive language outlined the benefits of the product (the Ripple Rug) clearly.
Having seen the successful results of the Purr N Play web-test Ron Steblea approached Scott Opfer to see if he would be interested in partnering in the fake product, sharing equally in all profits. Scott Opfer signed on as a full partner and committed to producing and shooting a commercial for the Purr N Play in return for his 33 1/3 a percent of sales. The other third party involved was Doug Winslow (of B&D Solutions), who not only shared in a third of the profits, but also contributed funds and provided IVR services (Interactive Voice Response (IVR) which is an automated telephone system that talks to the callers and gathers information. Doug Winslow made his big money with his company, Ignite Media Solutions. This IVR technology was used as part of the Purr N Play campaign to collect buyer information).
Ron and his team shared information with Scott Opfer and his team about the Ripple Rug website and Amazon store. Yes, you read that correctly. The Ripple Rug website, YouTube links, QVC and Amazon listings were shared with Scott Opfer and his team at Opfer Communications. The production team at Opfer all were provided links to the Ripple Rug marketing pages to write their own script calling it something else. There would have been no doubt that the Purr N Play, really was the Ripple Rug. Especially considering that while shooting the Ripple Rug rug for the Purr N Play TV commercial, everyone would have been trying their best to cover the Ripple Rug woven label affixed to the product.
The Ruckels did not only file lawsuits both against Ron Steblea, Rutlege & Bapst but also Scott Opfer and Opfer Communications. A settlement was made with Rutledge & Bapst. It was a pressurized settlement, as the Ruckel’s funds were depleted and Rutledge & Bapst claimed that: if it wasn’t settled they would file for bankruptcy and that no one would see any recompense. Yet another tactic from the Ron Steblea, who continually claimed that they were a small company with little (on-the-books) funding. Today Ron Steblea is President of DTC ECOMM. (DTC ECOMM LLC is a $400 million media agency with extensive consumer marketing capabilities…according to their press-release).
The law-suit against Opfer became a real doozy. Their lawyer, Bernie Rhodes, apparently an expert in using motion-practices and all sorts of tactics to drain the opposition, did just that. Opfer also took out a multi-million dollar wrongful acts insurance policy to cover any liability, a three-million dollar policy no less. That meant that Opfer wouldn’t have to pay any legal fees in their defense of being caught red handed, mid theft. A top-notch lawyer isn’t cheap, it can cost anywhere near $500/hr and higher. Opfer’s lawyer must have been raking in the dollars, whilst sitting pretty and enjoying trying to kill off yet another small American business.
The Ruckel’s had no choice, in October 2018 they filed to dismiss their lawsuit, their resources depleted, their faith in the legal system gone, they were advised by their lawyer, to withdraw from this battle, so as to live another day. Opfer’s lawyer tactics were quite personal, creating and manipulating information to make the Ruckels appear in a bad light, even though they weren’t the ones who did anything wrong.
However, the judge ruled in the Ruckel’s favor, to dismiss without prejudice, meaning that if they wanted, they could pick-up this case in the future, should they choose to do so.
Of course Opfer and his lawyer decided that this wouldn’t be the end of it. So what did they do? They decided to appeal the judge’s decision to dismiss without prejudice and to also claim all legal expenses. Another tactic, from the bad guys, to continue to drain and kill-off a small American company. In fact, this seems to be a continuing strategy by lawyers such as Mr. Rhodes, who’s ultimate goal is to use litigation practices, with the sole aim of bleeding their opposition dry while enriching themselves int he process. Apparently Rhodes, boasts about this openly as his law firm, according to a source who worked at that same firm.
The Ruckels then had to hire and pay for an Appeals lawyer. This meant paying to defend their right to re-open the case, should the chance arise, whilst also fighting against paying for Opfer’s (most certainly) ridiculous legal bill. One can only guess how many thousands of dollars Opfer’s lawyers racked-up.
The Eighth Circuit affirmed the Judge’s decision, rejecting each and every one of Opfer’s Lawyers arguments completely. The Appeals court found in favor of the Ruckels. While this meant shelling out many more dollars for the Ruckels, the outcome created a president. Meaning: SnugglyCat v. Opfer would be enshrined in federal law for the proposition that: a trademark infringement plaintiff can dismiss its claim against the defendant without having to pay the defendant’s attorney fees. That’s good news for other inventors, because should this happen to them, they need not worry about the bad guys stiffing them with a huge legal bill.
Is this the end of the appeals you might ask? Well Opfer and his lawyer Rhodes are entitled to ask the U.S. Supreme Court, to review the decision (called a “petition for writ of certiorari”). That’s pretty rare and in reality, less than 1% of Supreme Court petitions are granted.
You may ask, was it worth the stress, sleepless nights and the financial burden? The there is no simple answer. The legislative system simply favors the party with the most amount of funds. Unlimited funds means unlimited legal spending, which truly can crush and kill small businesses. Independent inventors already face a huge burden and mammoth costs in bringing their product to market. To top this, they have to face the wrath of deep-pocketed counterfeiters. Fred Ruckel admits: “Bad people are like a cancer. If you don’t do something it about it, it grows bigger and it gets worse, until it kills you!”
To conclude, there are also many notable organizations and individuals working to protect the rights of inventors. Randy Landreneau of US Inventor, and Josh Malone AKA Josh the Balloon Guy, together, with hundreds of inventors around the US, stand strong as a vocal unified-force looking to help impact legislation, protect innovation and ultimately the American Dream. These individuals are to be saluted for standing up against the bad buys that continue to crush the hopes of aspiring inventors.