Tillotson case shows united stand by glove makers

IT was a sweet second victory for nitrile glove makers when the US Court of Appeals last month gunned down US-based Tillotson Corp’s claims of infringement on its patent against 30 global nitrile glove manufacturers, dealers and importers, including 12 Malaysian companies.

Tillotson had filed a complaint of patent infringement with the US International Trade Commission (ITC) on May 2007 and demanded US$2 royalty for every 1,000 nitrile gloves imported into the United States.

However, the ITC on August 2008 issued an initial finding that the claim of infringement on the Tillotson patent was invalid and made a further confirmation on December 2008 that there was no violation of the USC Section 1337 and the ITC investigation was subsequently terminated.

This resulted in an appeal by Tillotson to the US Court of Appeals.

Looking back, one should applaud the quick actions by the affected local nitrile glove companies, which are members of the Malaysian Rubber Glove Manufacturers Association (Margma), to challenge Tillotson’s claim in the ITC investigation.

With the United States as one of the single-largest markets for local natural rubber (NR) gloves and nitrile gloves, Malaysian glove makers had taken a united stand to protect their strong market share by providing the ITC with solid information and technical datas on nitrile gloves.

They were also well represented by an experienced US law firm, Kirkland & Ellis LLP, to fight their case.

Seven local players – Hartalega Holdings Bhd , Laglove (M) Sdn Bhd, Latexx Partners Bhd, Kossan Rubber Industries Bhd , Riverstone Sdn Bhd, Top Glove Corp Bhd and YTY Holdings Sdn Bhd – had joined forces to challenge the claim.

According to sources, the Malaysian Rubber Board also helped to provide up-to-mark technical data to support Margma members in their quest.

Nitrile gloves account for 30% to 70% of the total gloves produced by Malaysian manufacturers.

Industry experts expect Malaysia’s rubber glove exports to the United States to increase in 2010, especially with the global economy showing signs of recovery.

Although some states in the US banned the usage of NR gloves due to allergic reactions from the high protein content, producers of nitrile gloves stand to benefit from the growing popularity of nitrile gloves, especially in the healthcare industry.

Many hospitals and healthcare providers use nitrile gloves, which are very similar to NR gloves.

Even transportation security workers at airports frequently use nitrile gloves for their inspections.

Given the huge demand for nitrile gloves in developed countries, many Malaysian NR glove makers have expanded into nitrile gloves and some have even switched to producing only nitrile gloves.

While players may have heaved a sigh of relief from their second victory in the Tillotson case, which means smoother and uninterrupted export into the US market, one must take heed that the Tillotson Patent still has four months before it expires in May this year.

Tillotson still has the time and opportunity to take up its case to higher authorities in the United States like the Supreme Court.

While this may not take place, local nitrile glove makers must be fully prepared to counter the issue should it resurface again.

l Hanim Adnan is assistant news editor at The Star. She believes that if patents are regarded as property, one should reward innovators accordingly and encourage investments in innovation.