- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 21, 2005


Inventor Tom Wicker sometimes gets breakthrough ideas during walks around his wooded, 15-acre hilltop spread. On occasion, he says, he will rush down to his print-worker’s shop on this village’s Main Street and “100 pages of math later, I have something that works.”

Mr. Wicker’s brainstorms are all about foiling crooks in the multibillion-dollar world of counterfeiting. His father spent much of his career doing the same kind of work, making currency and vital documents harder to duplicate, but he died feeling denied recognition or compensation.

Now, his sons have taken up their father’s cause. Tom and his brother David Wicker have attracted formidable allies, and an improbable comeback appears at hand. Tens of millions of dollars are at stake.

Tom Wicker, 44, recalls his father’s deathbed words in 1997. “Life’s going to be hell,” Ralph Wicker whispered, “but if you hang in there, you’re going to make this work.”

With the proliferation of high-quality color copiers and scanners, counterfeiting has ballooned to a $600 billion-a-year headache, the International Chamber of Commerce estimates. Scams range beyond currency to the packaging that secures medicines, software, aircraft parts and other products of high value.

Back in 1961 when counterfeiting hinged on getting help from engravers and other artisans gone bad, 27-year-old Ralph Wicker was awarded the first of 34 patents in graphic arts a technique to help commercial printers align screen angles precisely and easily.

Another invention in 1964 netted $65,000, enough to buy a house in suburban Rochester for his wife and six young children. But the good times didn’t last.

Ralph Wicker, a former Marine Corps sergeant with a gung-ho spirit but also a weakness for whiskey, gave up a steady job as a lithographer to become a go-it-alone entrepreneur only to find out he was not a businessman.

A pioneering “big dot-little dot” pantograph he devised in 1970 that made the word “void” appear in reproductions was plundered by rivals in the checks-and-forms industry. Over the next decade, he got fitful work as a consultant and bounced his family from town to town in western New York to keep ahead of bills.

His alcoholism was getting out of control, driving his children away while still in their teens. His inability to attract financial backing to develop his anti-counterfeiting tools aggravated him further.

“It was 10 years of never-ending failure,” said his middle child, Tom, who had inherited his father’s creative flair but opted for a secure job as a chief auto mechanic.

In 1982, his father’s esophagus ruptured from the effects of throwing back two quarts of whiskey a day. This life-threatening condition led to a bedside confrontation between father and son. “You have a talent, you need to use it, you’re wasting your life!” the father yelled.

Each made a vital concession. The father quit alcohol cold turkey and never went back; the son began relearning everything about printing he had first picked up at his father’s knee.

In 1987, Tom and elder brother David, a bookbindery foreman with a talent for marketing, packed in their jobs to support their father’s research.

While testing a fine-line engraving method, Ralph Wicker befriended Patrick White, a print shop owner who put all the latest color-copier models at his disposal. Shortly before securing a patent in 1991, Ralph Wicker presented his work to Secret Service officials who urged him not to share it with others, his sons contend.

It was his proudest breakthrough because of its lofty potential to become a key buffer for the nation’s money.

Again, however, the euphoria didn’t last. The Treasury stopped taking his calls, his sons say, and then unveiled a technique it called “concentric fine-line printing.”

That’s when Ralph Wicker called in his attorneys.

In a 1995 lawsuit seeking up to $93 million in royalties, he accused the Treasury Department of pirating his patented method of incorporating fine-line engravings in its newly unveiled $100 bill. The micropatterns cause blurriness, color changes and other electronic distortions when copied.

During the trial, Ralph Wicker rejected a $3 million settlement offer, saying it didn’t cover his investors’ costs. But his all-or-nothing case went down in flames.

While finding that “the United States in fact was infringing” his 1991 and 1993 patents, the U.S. Court of Federal Claims determined that two earlier patents secured in Europe invalidated key parts of his invention.

“It was really painful for everyone involved,” said an expert witness, Joseph Noga, an emeritus professor of electronic color imaging at Rochester Institute of Technology.

Government lawyers “kept ridiculing his operation as being small, insignificant,” Mr. Noga said. “All he wanted was recognition for his invention. He felt he was contributing in a patriotic way to solving a problem with our currency.”

Ralph Wicker died in 1997 of liver cancer, embittered by his bad luck fending off business rivals and the government.

In 1999, Tom and David Wicker received word that the European Patent Office had decided their late father’s arming of documents with intricate line patterns was a technological leap over “prior art” patents in Britain in 1968 and Germany in 1986 that had tripped up the lawsuit in Washington.

In 2002, the brothers transformed their expanding portfolio of patents into Document Security Systems Inc., a publicly traded company headed by Mr. White and backed by $5 million from investors. Tom Wicker, whom Mr. White calls “our Einstein,” was given 1 million shares. The stock recently surged above $13 a share.

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