The Searcher

IP attorney Robert Cumbow shares his lifelong love of movies

Published in 2017 Washington Super Lawyers — July 2017

Since May 2003, when Graham Dunn moved to its current location on the northernmost pier along Seattle’s waterfront—12 years before it merged with Miller Nash to form the current firm—intellectual property attorney Robert Cumbow hasn’t bothered switching offices. If you’re on the southern side of the building, he explains, you get the morning sun, which, even in Seattle, necessitates closing the blinds. His office faces north, so he doesn’t have to do this. He flicks the blinds to show they’re dusty from disuse, then presents the view: Puget Sound, the Space Needle, the old Seattle P.I. globe, and “Echo,” Jaume Plensa’s towering sculpture, which was installed in nearby Olympic Sculpture Park in 2014.

“I watched them assemble her block by block,” he says. “They were at it for, I want to say, a week and a half.” 

The office itself looks more like it’s inhabited by a film producer than an IP attorney. The walls are covered with framed movie posters and memorabilia: Once Upon a Time in the West here, Dr. Strangelove there, Hitchcock everywhere. An old film canister is hung in the middle, surrounded by magnets his daughter made: Clint Eastwood squinting, Janet Leigh screaming. “My Olde Curiosity Shop,” he calls it. “I clean it out every two years, whether it needs it or not.” 

Cumbow had an itinerant childhood (his father was an Army officer), an equally itinerant career (he got his J.D. at 45), but a constant love of movies. “My mom was a huge fan of Gary Cooper,” he says. “My dad liked Hitchcock. He liked war movies and Westerns. So I got taken to a lot of those.”

The Army bases of the 1950s, he recalls, contained several theaters with movies rotating in and out quickly, allowing him to see five per week. “I remember especially seeing Rio Bravo with my friends at Fort Bragg. Man, we just couldn’t get over that. We were re-enacting scenes and saying lines. Talking about movies—that’s what my youth was.”

It’s become his adulthood, too. In the early ’70s, after a stint in the Army and before working communications for Washington State Department of Fisheries, he began writing film reviews for Movietone News. In the ’80s, then at Puget Power, he wrote a book, The Films of Sergio Leone (since revised and available on Kindle). In 1983, he was working on a book of puns and sought New York art attorney Barbara Hoffman’s advice on copyright issues. He immediately became interested in intellectual property law. But what really propelled him into law school was a more practical concern: making enough money to support his daughters. 

“I looked at Puget Power and other companies and saw that an increasing number of the management-level people had law degrees,” he says. “I thought: ‘I get it. A J.D. is the new MBA.’”

His timing turned out to be impeccable. About a year after he began practicing trademark law at Perkins Coie in the early ’90s, he got a call from a client who said Wired magazine wanted to make a deal for its domain name: “I wasn’t sure what he was talking about: ‘What do you mean domain name? What do you mean file transfer protocol?’ He invited me out to his house, sat me down in front of the computer and showed me the internet. There wasn’t really a web as we know it now. It was file transfer protocol. It was all words.”

And he got in on the ground floor. He represented Graduate Management Admission Council in a matter against its competition, Princeton Review, which had registered the domain name GMAC.com. (Cumbow’s resolution involved a case of beer for the opposing side.) He did due diligence on the Amazon.com IPO and the public art at Safeco Field. He handled an early matter for Amazon in which someone registered a commonly misspelled version of the company’s domain (amazom.com) and may have coined the term “typo squatting.” 

In the early days, he says, “I had Perkins Coie’s library do a weekly search for any case in which the term ‘internet’ appeared. Some weeks there wouldn’t be one. Some weeks there would be one or two. Eventually, of course, it exploded and you couldn’t even maintain an internet case law list anymore.”

All the while, he continued to volunteer for Washington Lawyers for the Arts, which, in the early ’80s, had helped him with an early writer’s contract, but he was too busy to write about film. An interest in movie soundtracks, particularly the work of Alexandre Desplat in the 2004 film Birth, got him going again; and in 2009 he was approached by Edwin Weihe at Seattle University, where he was already teaching trademark law, to help with its nascent film program. 

“I surmise that Edwin engaged me to teach Westerns and horror because no academic coming out of the English department is going to be particularly interested in teaching Westerns or horror,” he says. Cumbow also taught Hitchcock, Kubrick, taboo/transgressive films, Douglas Sirk and even vampire flicks. He began to teach at Northwest Film Forum (another client) as well, including a course on “End of the West” Westerns. Last year, for the Seattle International Film Festival, he led a Cinema Dissection group—an interactive explication of one movie over one night—on Hitchcock’s Psycho. In March, he did the same with Vertigo. A class on musical films, for the Women’s University Club of Seattle, is slated for August. 

Compact, with white hair and a white mustache—John Mahoney, the dad in Frasier, would be a good casting choice for him—Cumbow has a fastidiousness and exactitude about him. Even in telling stories, he needs the details just so, and circles back to get them right. At one point he’s asked why movies are so important to him, and he responds, “I thought you were going to ask, ‘Why didn’t you ever try to get into the film business?’” and then answers that one. (He made amateur films in college and the Army, and wrote several screenplays in the ’70s.) 

Over the years, he’s collected quotes about teaching and says he has 12 or 14 good ones. The one he keeps in mind every time he steps in front of a class is from an old mentor, and after a long-ranging discussion that includes the doorway theme in John Ford’s The Searchers, he says from memory: “‘Enthusiasm is contagious.’ … If you drop your inhibitions and show people how much you love what you’re talking to them about, they’ll love it, too.”

 


 

Robert Cumbow’s top 10 movies*

King Kong (1933)

Citizen Kane (1941)

Seven Samurai (1954)

The Searchers (1956)

Vertigo (1958)

La Dolce Vita (1959)

Lawrence of Arabia (1963)

Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)

The Wild Bunch (1969)

Barry Lyndon (1975)

Why doesn’t he have anything since 1975? 

“People often point that out to me. When you’ve got more than a century of film and you can only pick 10, you’re going to go for the ones that seem the most timeless, the most classical. And it sometimes takes years, even decades, for a film to establish itself; for you to realize, ‘Wow, that really is a great film. I haven’t appreciated that enough.’ You constantly reassess.”

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