January 28, 2013 AT 11:26 am

@Quirky vs @OXO

Quirky Vs Oxo
Here’s a good one for our Maker businesses category today.

Quirky is a VC funded ($91 million) NYC based crowd-sourcing product development company. OXO is a manufacturer of kitchen utensils, office supplies, and housewares also based in New York City. We’re guessing OXO’s revenue is at least $250m/year). Both are currently engaged in a public fight over a dustpan design.

A lot of makers sent this saga in to us asking what we thought about all this (both companies are in NYC, we’ve visited the Quirky offices once before) so first up – here’s some coverage.

BoingBoing:

Quirky, a collective for inventors of clever household gadgets, recently accused OXO of ripping off one of its popular designs, the Broom Groomer, whose toothed dustbin may be used to strip the brush of debris.

It turns out, however, that the design was patented almost a century ago. OXO’s detailed description of the design’s history—which includes a winking comparison between longtime OXO products and some of Quirky’s own recent variations—turned the table with class and style.

Smart-Design
Quirky’s post:

…an intrepid troop of Quirky staffers took to the streets to protest the appropriation of Bill Ward‘s Broom Groomer design by the product company OXO. The demonstration kicked off at 8:30am, and was based outside the offices of both OXO and Smart Design, the consultancy that designed the product in question. Protesting staff members carried signs, chanted slogans, and donned t-shirts proclaiming “Justice for Bill Ward”, braving the frigid cold to serve as the voice of Ward and the product’s 347 other influencers. While public demonstrations may not be a mainstay here at Quirky, we’re hoping the message was clear: don’t mess with our inventors.

OXO’s response here. It’s factual, mature and professional.

On January 21, consumer products company Quirky accused OXO and our design partner, Smart Design, of appropriating a feature from a product called the Broom Groomer, which was submitted to their community in 2009 by an independent inventor and launched in 2010. Their product includes “rubber ‘teeth’ on the back of the dustpan [that] … quickly and easily comb out dust bunnies.”

While we’re a good-natured group, we have serious respect for designers and inventors alike, and we want to make sure the design community – including everyone involved with Quirky – has all of the information needed to understand what’s going on.

The community of designers and employees at Quirky trust the leadership of the company to know which fights to pick, which ones to spend time and resources on and most of all, which ones to rally a community. This was not the one.

Rake
Quirky has a ton of funding, incredible offices (more photos) and a lot of resources – a for-profit company shouldn’t be picketing OXO a few blocks away, they should keep innovating. OXO has a stronger argument that many more designs from Quirky are based on “inspirations” from OXO products (they have many examples).

Adafruit 1120
The bigger issue is the “Broom Groomer” on Quirky says “patent pending”. The legal folks advising Bill Ward (designer of the Quirky product) need to likely let him know this is not patentable and could be a waste of money & time.

Adafruit 1121
2 years ago the designer, Bill Ward even talked about previous products (Quirky did not mention this at all).


In this video above “Ice cold justice” – Ben says 347 people were “robbed” and “we have all the other means available to us, we have legal protection, we have patent protection, we have these different things we can do”. The kid holding the megaphone, the braveheart sounding bagpipes, theatrics.. (nice touch!) and high production values make it clear this was an interesting, but misguided PR attempt. It doesn’t seem like there’s any legal or patent protection for Broom Groomer, if there is Quirky should include that in their statements instead of using it as a threat. Quirky’s policy regarding patents appears to be “avoid them”.

According to OXO, Ben said to them regarding IP the following:

In 2012, OXO President Alex Lee met with Quirky CEO Ben Kaufman at their office to discuss product design and innovation. At one point, Alex asked what steps Quirky took to protect the Intellectual Property (IP) of this broad community when inventors submit their idea in an open and public forum. Mr. Kaufman responded, “Nothing. Speed to market is our best protection.”

This is the problem we think, Quirky’s DNA says something different then their actions now.

Afkelley
On September 9, 1919, the patent for a Broom Groomer-like idea was issued to Addison F. Kelley from Freeland Park, IN.

Quirky’s response:

it must be slow at oxo if they’re basing new designs on 100 year old ideas. We are proud of the steps we have taken and confident that there will be justice for Bill Ward and the inventors of the world.

How did it end? Quirky is doubling-down.

…we believe it’s very important for the market to know who brought the concept of a commercially viable grooming dustpan to market…

We do not plan on further engaging in a tit for tat open letter writing campaign. We will continue to let our unique business model, innovative products, and the inventive way we go about protecting both of those things do the talking.

OK!

And what did OXO offer?

How can OXO help?
Business aside, we’re huge supporters of creativity and education in the design community. And as designers and inventors ourselves, we believe it’s our responsibility to understand the legal boundaries of our work.

To this point, one of OXO’s Senior Product Engineers, Rich, has offered to give a “Patent Process Primer” for the inventor community, one based on the experiences, frustrations and strategies around protecting IP that we have learned over the years. Naturally, all Quirky inventors and employees are welcome too.

We’re posting this up because community is a powerful card to play, there is equity you can put in and withdraw – patents, crowdsourcing and how companies interact with each other over “ownership” is something important anyone who makes things discusses.

We do open-source hardware, and so do many other companies – we do not think companies need patent protection to build a business. Quality, service and support are more important. Here’s a quote from Sparkfun.

In a recent talk, Seidle likened the alleged protections that patents offer to IP Obesity. “If your idea is unique, easily copied, and can be sold for profit in a local market, it will be,” he argues. “Ok, but that’s what patents are for, right? I don’t think they help much. Patents can cost $30,000 to $50,000. And the USPTO is so backed up you’ll have to wait three to five years to even hear back on their decision. Ask yourself, how much does technology change in five years?”

“Maybe you think I’m naive,” he continues, “Maybe you think an open source company can’t be scaled above 150 people. That’s fine, I’m sure patents will work for you. But for myself, my 135 co-workers, 75 million dollars of sales, 600,000 customers and our 431 unpatented products wish you good luck.
Eventually, says Boudreaux, they even want to open source Sparkle. “It’s a wild ride,” she says, “but a fun one for sure.”

Post up your thoughts in the comments.


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8 Comments

  1. This was a horrible PR move by Quirky. The OXO response (and Quirky’s response to that) show that Quirky has totally messed up. Also, Quirky can’t get its own facts straight. They have a big banner showing the year for the scoop at 2009 when the creator didn’t even join the site until 2010.

    http://www.quirky.com/users/16810

  2. Any PR attack on one company from another is pretty juvenile. But this one…

    From an inventor’s perspective this couldn’t be more damaging to Quirky. Quirky’s whole business is made from being on the side of the inventor, that they have a better understanding of complicated things like Patents and Intellectual Property. That they will take care of you an your ideas.

    As it turns out they have a very poor understanding of patent and IP law. And if their idea of taking care of an inventor is misguided street protests and ridiculous (and not fact-supported) rants instead of spending a few minutes consulting with an IP attorney, then any inventor with an idea would do well to stay far away from them.

    There’s little innovation in the Home Widget product category, meaning the is little patent protection on anything. OXO has over 850 products, but searching the patent office turns up only three patents – all expired. This shows that a company can build a world-wide, trusted brand without the protections of patents. Or disparaging competitors.

    OXO’s offer of holding a free patent law primmer was really the icing on the cake. OXO’s offer shows that it wants to foster invention and engage with the community – Which sounds like Quirky’s business model. But it seems that they’d rather spread misinformation and machismo.

  3. That comment thread about the dustpan on quirky.com is curious reading… The 7th comment mentions the 1917 patent, so it’s pretty hard for Quirky to claim that they weren’t aware of it. Also interesting that the original submission by Bill Ward is almost exactly like what was disclosed in the 1917 patent (the only difference I can see is rounding of the back of the pan which has no bearing on the patentability).

    The possibly novel features of the dustpan (the step-on handle, say) were suggested by other commenters. Arguably, if a patent on the novel features (if there are any) was filed (it certainly hasn’t been published yet but that can take some time) then those users should have been listed as the inventors, not Bill Ward…

    I was also surprised that Quirky claim they can apply for a patent after disclosure of the invention on their site, and learned that in the US a grace period of one year is given after public disclosure. This approach does however bar Quirky from seeking patent protection in most other countries around the world.

    As usual, patents are a mess…

  4. Obvious PR stunt is obvious.

    Poor business model, just as obvious.

  5. Once they were informed about the 1917 patent and used that to insult Oxo while simultaneously still trying to claim they arn’t doing the same, how frankly childish.

  6. Well, let me see here…

    Re-reading OXO’s response with an eye for their train of thought, here’s the logic they seem to be using (in a nutshell):
    “Others steal from us, Quirky steals from others, Quirky made it easy, so it’s OK for us to steal from Quirky”.
    That sounds like nothing more than bald self-justification wrapped up in their professional words.

    Worse, this seems to be OXO’s support for the small inventor (again, in a nutshell):
    “We’ll steal from you if we can because that’s just business. But we’ll help you by offering a class on how you can keep us from stealing from you.”

    Hmmm….seems OXO could better support the community of small inventors by refusing to steal from us, whether they legally can or not.

  7. ha – Also, I needed to disclose that I am a long-time Quirky inventor/community member. Sorry.

    Anyway, Quirky has always been upfront about how it protects its IP:
    – Speed to market.
    – Public pressure on those who steal
    (The march to OXO HQ and the billboard are nothing. Imagine 300,000 people tweeting instagrams of their "OXO is unfair" signs as they stand outside all the Targets, Wal-marts, and Bed Bath & Beyonds).

    Will it work?

    Maybe. Public pressure sure seems to get car dealers to honor their ebay auctions, for example.

  8. @Clinton: protecting IP actually involves obtaining a patent. being first to market gives you a competitive advantage, but unless you have a patent, Quirky has no legs to stand on. Even Bill Ward questioned his own "invention" and it was pointed out that this already exists:

    http://www.quirky.com/ideations/18545

    Bill Ward: "Hey everyone, This morning Matthew pointed out that he saw a product similar to my ‘Broom Groomer’ idea [link] Thought it only fair to advise the community so you don’t waste a vote on an idea that has an IP issue. Bummer!"

    Brian Shy (Quirky member/staff): "Bill: There is not really an IP issue here because the idea was originally patented in 1917 (sic), see here: [link] Since patents are only good for around 20 years anyone can use this idea now, including us, we just can’t patent it ourselves."

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