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Business Observer Thursday, Jun. 11, 2009 12 years ago

Spinning Mad

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A novice inventor claims a Goliath-like company took his idea for a product that can turn a ceiling fan into a stereo. He's fighting back.
by: Mark Gordon Managing Editor

A novice inventor claims a Goliath-like company took his idea for a product that can turn a ceiling fan into a stereo. He's fighting back.


Charles Hornback had a bad case of the shakes when he boarded a plane for Las Vegas in early January.

But these weren't the gambling jitters. Instead, Hornback was heading to Vegas because he heard a rumor that the Hunter Fan Co., a 120-year-old multimillion-dollar ceiling fan manufacturer, had stolen his patented idea for a ceiling fan with an attached wireless stereo speaker.

Hornback, who lives in Sarasota and works for a commercial development firm, says he spent six years and more than $100,000 of his own money in trying to bring the product to market.

Hornback got off the plane and headed straight for the Consumer Electronics Show. He says he found a booth manned by Hunter officials and inside it they were showing off the Concert Breeze, a product the company claimed was the “the first and only fan-sound system combination.”

Hornback, however, says he was staring back at his own invention. He says he already developed a product called Phan Tunes, a wireless speaker system that is remote controlled and can be attached to just about any ceiling fan. Hornback was granted a patent for Phan Tunes in 2005, according the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office's Web site.

“I was in disbelief,” says Hornback. “Here's something I've been working on since 2003, something I have spent a small fortune on, and someone else has it.”

Hornback, in an interview and in a lawsuit filed in January and officially served against Hunter June 9, claims the company “misappropriated trade secrets” regarding the wireless speaker ceiling fan.

The lawsuit also alleges that Memphis-based Hunter is in breach of a confidentiality agreement. On that count, Hornback says he and some business partners met confidentially with Hunter officials as early as 2004, in an effort to license the idea to the company.

But Hunter executives, after initially saying they liked the idea, took several years in getting back to Hornback and his partners, the lawsuit alleges. Then, in May, claims the lawsuit, Hunter officials told Hornback the company was going to pass on Phan Tunes.

The next time Hornback had any contact with the company was in January, at the electronics show.

Hornback's Sarasota attorney, Harry Haskins, filed the suit against Hunter in the 12th Judicial Circuit in Sarasota. Haskins is asking a judge to issue an injunction preventing Hunter from using or continuing to sell the product.
Hunter executives didn't return calls seeking comment on the lawsuit.

Hornback, 34, says he's an unlikely candidate to be embroiled in a trade secrets lawsuit with a super-sized manufacturing company. Hornback grew up in a small town in Missouri before moving to the Sarasota area in his mid 20s.

He worked in insurance in the aviation industry before moving on to commercial real estate development. Although he says he's not a techie or a tinkerer, he thought he could figure out a way to add speakers to a ceiling fan.

In fact, Hornback says he was surprised that the product didn't exist already when he began looking for one in 2003. After a fruitless search for one at Home Depots and Best Buys, Hornback set out to see if he could build one himself. “It became a passion,” he says.

The next five years were an up and down journey of trying to bring the product to market, an effort that included a lot of nights and weekends. Hornback says he spent $50,000 on trips to places such as the Philippines and Hong Kong to find a manufacturing partner.

He also spent at least $100,000 on the legal fess for getting a patent. Hornback eventually brought in a few local business partners to help with some of the costs.

Hornback still has big dreams regarding Phan Tunes. He can envision it being sold to restaurants, hotels, doctor's offices and just about any place that has a ceiling fan.

That makes the lawsuit more of a vindication play than a hindrance on future business prospects. “Hunter isn't stopping us from moving forward,” says Hornback. “We will still do everything in our power to manufacture and sell this.”

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