NEW YORK--A patent for panties is being contested in the courts. Alba-Waldensian Inc. last week filed suit against rival I. Appel Corp. seeking to invalidate I. Appel's recently granted patent for underwear knit on high-speed, computerized circular knitting machines. In the suit, filed in U.S. District Court in Charlotte, N.C., Alba-Waldensian claims it was using Lonati SM-4 circular knitting machines to produce panties with stretch panels for more than a year before I. Appel begun using the same process. "It's hard to believe that [I. Appel] did such poor homework prior to filing for a patent," Thomas F. Schuster, Alba-Waldensian's president and chief executive officer, said in a statement announcing the suit. Schuster said he sent a letter to Alba's retail customers to allay their fears that purchasing Alba's seamless underwear would subject them to an I. Appel patent infringement lawsuit. "If you should receive any threats of patent infringement from I. Appel or if you have any questions regarding this situation, please do not hesitate to contact either me or Bob Fumento [Alba's consumer production president] here in Valdese," Schuster wrote in the letter. Alba is based in Valdese, N.C. "In the meantime," Schuster said, "rest assured that we have every right to continue selling and shipping this product." Schuster said he became aware of the I. Appel patent when he read an I. Appel advertisement in WWD on March 21. The advertisement threatened legal action against manufacturers making seamless underwear on the SM-4 machines. The letter said Alba developed the products in question in late 1989 and in 1990 and was shipping them in early 1991, while the filing date of I. Appel's patent was July 22, 1992. Contacted for comment, Norman Katz, chairman of I. Appel Corp., said Friday, "I know nothing about the lawsuit. I haven't been served with papers. We got the patent and advertised it in Women's Wear Daily." Katz said he had no further comment. In a telephone interview, Schuster added, "We were not only flabbergasted by how I. Appel managed to get the patent, but the aggressive way they came after us. They are coming after us like a house on fire, and the guy [Katz] doesn't have a leg to stand on. It's up to him where it goes from here. It could go to trial." Another underwear manufacturer is watching the situation. Mel Ortner, a corporate counselor for Sara Lee Intimates, a unit of Sara Lee Corp., said, "We've been in touch with I. Appel, and our lawyers will soon be sitting down with Appel's lawyers." Ortner declined to elaborate.
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