An Open Letter to Our Bloggers

Earlier this week a consumer products company located two blocks from OXO started a very public campaign accusing us of stealing a product idea. After thoughtful consideration, we decided that we needed to clarify the situation. It is not our practice to defend ourselves publicly. In fact, this is the first time in the history of our company we have ever taken a public stand like this. But sometimes, you just need to set the record straight.Below is our full response.

OXO, Crooks and Robbers…?

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 innovators 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.

Let’s start at the very beginning

For a little background, all of this started on Monday with a billboard on 28th Street in Chelsea, just two blocks from OXO’s office. Quirky claimed the OXO Upright Dust Pan “ripped off” their design. An image of the billboard was shared with Quirky’s nearly 30,000 Facebook fans.

On Tuesday, this escalated to a picket line outside of our office building during the busy morning hours, led by Quirky CEO Ben Kaufman. You can find photos and a video of the event on Quirky’s blog and Facebook page. Images were also shared on Twitter and Instagram. If you want more details of what transpired, visit the Quirky blog here.

In the video, Mr. Kaufman says, “At Quirky, we believe in one thing and one thing that’s very special, which is human protection. We believe that humans are innately good people and that if a problem arises that they will do the right thing. It’s our job today to show a very big company what that right thing is.”

 

We were surprised that Quirky didn’t first address their issue with us before taking it public. Our companies are two blocks apart. We have about the same number of employees. We know the people that work there and they know us. Our leaders have spoken. Isn’t it a little strange that they didn’t think to pick up the phone and call first? Wouldn’t that have been the right thing to do?

Justice for Addison F. Kelley

Unfortunately, the designer of Quirky’s Broom Groomer wasn’t the first person to come up with the idea of teeth on a dustpan. The idea was actually invented almost 100 years ago. On September 9, 1919, the patent for this idea was issued to Addison F. Kelley from Freeland Park, IN. Information about this patent (No. US1,315,310) is available here.

 

 

 

In a nutshell, Addison F. Kelley’s patent specifies a:“provision for combing the brush used in connection with the pan… It will be apparent … that a broom or brush may be readily cleaned and particles of hair and the like removed therefrom by inserting the teeth into the body of the brush and then pulling thereon until the teeth are free of the outer ends of the bristles of the brush or broom, at which time the dirt removed will fall into the dust pan.”

Why is this description important? Ever since Mr. Kelley’s patent expired in 1936, any dustpan that includes teeth to effectively clean debris from broom or brush bristles will likely resemble each other, because each relies on the same, formerly patented, feature.

In fact, every single one of the features in our product is covered by the 1919 patent. Not one of the features has anything to do with the assertions made by Quirky. Plus, our version of this bristle-cleaning concept is featured on a Sweep Set and Long-Handled Dustpan, not a hand-held dustpan like Quirky’s. And our teeth are higher off the ground so it’s easier to clean the full bristle head of a Sweeper or a Broom. Not only that, our teeth are made of rigid plastic, not rubber, to provide strength when combing through the bristles and a surface that will not retain dust and hair.

Ideas are limitless and patents expire for a reason: to encourage competition, innovation and the evolution of new ideas that ultimately benefit the end user. If patents never expired, we would have only one car company, and the cars they develop would likely not be readily available and affordable to so many people all over the world. Imagine that.

At OXO, we either invent or improve. In this instance, we improved upon Mr. Kelley’s patent. Many other innovators do this as well. Apple did not invent the Walkman. They did not invent the cell phone. They did not invent the tablet computer. Their designers improved each and now millions of people enjoy the fruits of their improvements.

Some important lessons

We recognize that Quirky is relatively new and there are a few things they are still figuring out. In the spirit of collaboration, we’d like to share some pointers as Quirky continues to iterate on its business model:

  • Just because an idea was submitted does not mean that idea is original.
  • Just because a product has launched does not mean it’s new. In fact, a similar product could have already been launched and discontinued.
  • Just because a patent application was submitted doesn’t mean it has been reviewed or approved. It also doesn’t mean a patent will be issued.

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery

With over 800 OXO tools, we also come across products that look strikingly similar to our own. At this point, many consumers don’t realize that prior to OXO, there were no soft, comfortable non-slip grips on kitchen tools or other consumer products. We appreciate the competition’s right to incorporate this feature to the point where it is now commonplace. In the end, the consumer won.

While we’d never go so far as to hold a public protest, we thought we’d take this chance to share a few examples of Quirky products that have a strangely familiar “OXO” touch.

To be fair

We feel that inspiration can come from anywhere and Quirky knows this as well as the next guy. Here’s an example, The Pluck Egg Yolk Separator.

This product bears resemblance to a YouTube video that has received close to 16 Million views. The video was published on July 30th, 2012, and was not the first to describe this idea. Three weeks later, a product with the same idea (Pluck) was introduced to Quirky’s community. Now, we give the inventor the full benefit of the doubt – there is no way of knowing whether he saw the video prior to his invention. Still, should the consumers who posted the videos cry foul? When similar products, inspired by these creative videos, are introduced by other manufacturers, will Quirky come after them, as well?

A note to the inventor community

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. Ben responded, “Nothing. Speed to market is our best protection.”

At OXO we believe wholeheartedly in our design partners and inventors. Every year, we pay millions of dollars in royalties to both to protect their integrity and reward them for their talents. Needless to say, we take IP very, very seriously at OXO.

Understanding Quirky’s take on IP, we think the inventor community should understand a few things before they submit ideas online. The most important one is this: Once you disclose an unprotected idea publicly, without a confidentiality agreement, you have lost the right to file a patent in some countries (including Taiwan) and the clock starts ticking for the rest of the world. From that point, you have 12 months within which to file a patent application. It’s not enough to sign a non-disclosure agreement with Quirky. You must be protected from ALL parties privy to your idea – that includes the entire Quirky community of 336,000 inventors.

Even if Quirky eventually takes steps to apply for a patent to protect your idea, they also have to do so within the 12-month window. But if Quirky decides not to pursue the ideas you submitted publicly, it is then your own responsibility to file against that ticking clock. Please understand your risks before publicly submitting your ideas.

Sadly for the inventor of the Broom Groomer the facts are a little blurry. This week, Quirky’s billboard said the Broom Groomer was invented in 2009. However, Quirky.com states the idea was publicly displayed beginning March 2, 2010. The application with the US Patent Office was not filed until April 18, 2011 – in either case, it was past the 12 month window.

What does this mean? This means whatever additional features Quirky sought to protect for the Broom Groomer beyond those in the original 1919 Kelley patent will likely be ruled invalid by the US Patent Office for not adhering to the 12-month window. The inventor might want to consider following up with Quirky about this.

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.

Please tweet us (@OXO) or post on our Facebook wall (facebook.com/oxo) if you’re interested in attending or learning more.

Time to call a truce

We push ourselves to make every product and every task an experience that’s significantly better, so we can help make everyday living easier. This has been our mission since 1990 and we do so with high regard and respect for all those who have innovated before us. We believe the spirit of fair competition challenges others to find a better solution and in the end, the consumer wins.

Now, let’s put this all behind us and get back to designing great products.

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