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A patent mystery: Who invented the portable personal stereo?

Michael Fathers reports on the enigmatic case of Andreas Pavel vs Sony
IT IS David taking on Goliath. In the unlikely setting of the new Patent County Court at Wood Green, north London, a QC, Robin Jacobs, leads a team of bewigged barristers supported by a row of solicitors from Baker & McKenzie, the biggest law firm in the world. They represent the Sony Corporation, one of the largest electronics firms in the world.

On the other side, Andreas Pavel, a German (or is he an Italian, or maybe a Brazilian?), is represented by a middle-aged man who looks like the chemistry lab monitor, gnaws his knuckles and bites his fingernails. Keith Beresford, a patent agent, is making his first court appearance as an advocate.

The stakes are high, maybe millions of pounds. For Mr Pavel is suing Sony for infringement of patent. At issue is: who invented the portable personal stereo? Sony has always insisted that its famous Walkman was developed after its founder, Akio Morita, got fed up with hearing pop music from his children's hi-fi set. It came on the market in July 1979. Mr Pavel was reported as saying a couple of years ago that he conceived the idea of a portable cassette player while on a touring holiday of Europe in the Seventies.

A curtain of silence falls as soon as you get near Mr Pavel. He is surrounded by a clutch of supporters and sponsors, mainly in beards, who talk in whispers and riddles.

Please explain, I asked them, why Mr Pavel does not want his photograph taken?

'Security,' said his spokeswoman, an American called Suzanne Sondrup. 'Security,' said the man in a beard beside her, who added that he was an expert witness and then referred to Mr Pavel as 'our client'.

Security] Just what is going on? Is there a conspiracy? Has there been a death threat? 'We can't tell you, but on no account is his picture to be taken,' Miss Sondrup said.

Paranoia began to affect me after a while. Yes, they were giving me the evil eye. On Friday, when it was revealed in court that Mr Pavel's brother, Ulrich Pavel, had put up pounds 50,000 to enable the case to proceed, Miss Sondrup asked another reporter not to mention Ulrich's name because it would endanger his family. She made no attempt to explain such an extraordinary statement.

We do know that Mr Pavel is 47. He looks like the farmer holding the pitchfork in that American painting of the Midwest prairie-dweller with his wife outside a barn. He is bald, has a square-cut beard in the style of an austere Lutheran pastor, and wears rimless spectacles. He is actually quite jolly when you manage to corner him away from the minders.

He told me that he was born in Berlin and studied philosophy and sociology. He is not a scientist. At one stage he called himself a television consultant. Miss Sondrup didn't know what to call him last week, but she was quite certain he was a Brazilian. 'You mean he has a Brazilian passport?' I asked. 'I don't know,' she replied. His British patent says he is a German citizen who lives in Italy.

'Did the idea of the portable stereo come to you suddenly as if in a dream?' I asked him during a brief meeting on the pavement as we headed for Wood Green tube? 'Sort of,' he said. 'Well, what then?' 'I'm not certain, I don't know.'

He brushed me off after that with a smile and advice that Suzanne would tell me all. Miss Sondrup had to check with the team before she could tell me anything, which was nothing. She did compare herself to Wendy in Peter Pan. The team was the Lost Boys. I suppose Mr Pavel is Peter and the Sony Corporation is Captain Hook and the crocodile rolled into one.

The drawing of Mr Pavel's invention - which is found in the patent, specification number 1-601-447, that he filed in London on 24 March 1977 - doesn't look like a Walkman. It is like Batman's belt, on which the batteries and stereo equipment hang.

Sony's argument in court is that Mr Pavel's patent is invalid and unenforceable because it is not an invention. The technology for a personal stereo system was known and obvious.

'There are two primary requirements for a patent,' Jonathan Davies, spokesman for the Chartered Institute of Patent Agents, told me. 'It must embody a new principle. But it must also have an inventive step. It must be more than just a straightforward development.'

In the end it will be for Judge Peter Ford to decide. The case is expected to last three weeks.