We see stories often enough about "big" companies "copying" the ideas of individuals or small upstarts, and it's not uncommon to see a group of fans rise up in protest, often leading the big company to back down and apologize. This can show how social pressure can keep egregious behavior in check -- but sometimes, it can create virtual lynch mobs that are ill-informed. Last week's fight between Quirky and OXO is a really fascinating case study both in how such a lynch mob can come about... as well as how the so-called "big" company crafted a really good response.
If you're unfamiliar with the players Quirky is actually a pretty cool startup, where people submit ideas for cool products, which are then voted on by the community, and the most popular ideas are refined by the community and then made into products and sold in stores, with whoever submitted the initial idea getting a cut of the revenue. I like the model, and think it fits well with a number of other cool services (like Kickstarter) that are leading to a revolution in the creation of new consumer products. OXO is a somewhat ubiquitous maker of useful products for your home, with a focus on comfortable rubbery grips.
Last week, Quirky suddenly announced a war against OXO
, arguing that OXO's Upright Sweep Set
(a broom and dustpan set) was actually a copy of Quirky's Broom Groomer
. The key issue? Both dustpans have "teeth" that hopefully pull off stubborn dirt and dust from the broom into the dustpan. You can see them here:
Quirky argued it was standing up for the little guy, inventor Bill Ward
, who first submitted the idea that became the Broom Groomer. The whole thing certainly felt like a publicity stunt to some extent, with Quirky putting up a big freaking banner on its building referencing the fact that OXO's offices are two blocks away from its own:
Also, the "protest" outside of OXO's office felt fairly contrived:
Of course, when an online mob is out for justice, arguing that you've "ripped off" the little guy, plenty of companies quite reasonably just fold. Often this is because they have done something that, if not illegal, is somewhat questionable in nature. However, OXO didn't feel they had done anything wrong, and they put together an almost perfect response to the whole campaign
. Seriously, for anyone working for a larger company, trying to understand how to respond to an angry online uprising, when much of that uprising has been driven by misinformation, look at OXO's response and take notes.
The response is clear, written in a conversational tone -- but also quite direct in explaining why Quirky's campaign was complete hogwash. It's not defensive, calmly walking through what had already transpired, and explaining what Quirky had stated. But then it added the important missing facts, starting with the fact that such designs weren't just common, but that one had been patented about 100 years ago, and had long been in the public domain.
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: http://www.google.com/patents/US1315310.
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."
They then note that the patent has been expired since 1936 and highlight a number of differences between the Quirky product and the OXO product, but then explain how innovation works
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.
This is fantastic for a number of reasons. But, beyond that, OXO points out that other companies copy its innovations all the time, and they're cool with that, because that's competition
and it's how innovation is supposed to work:
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.
And then, they highlight a ton of Quirky products that are remarkably similar to OXO products, but which OXO had first. Here's just one example:
In the end, they make the key point:
Now, let's put this all behind us and get back to designing great products.
Of course, there's also a sidebar, in which they point out that Quirky is attempting to patent the Broom Groomer, and noting that beyond running into trouble due to that 1919 patent, it appears Quirky failed to file its patent within the 12-month window you have after disclosing an idea. The sidebar also notes that inventors who submit their ideas to Quirky may not fully understand the legal implications of doing so -- and they offer everyone, Quirky inventor or not, the opportunity to take a "patent process primer" from an OXO product engineer.
Over the weekend, Quirky responded with its own blog post
, that comes across as fairly weak in comparison. The entire argument hinges on timing. Quirky insists that OXO must have copied its design (despite the differences) because of the timing when each product came out. It ignores the many products that OXO highlighted it has where similar products came from Quirky later. Instead, Quirky continues to spin it as "little guy against big company," somehow claiming a ridiculous victory in that it got OXO to respond. That's pretty weak sauce, frankly. OXO won this battle pretty handily.
In the end, the whole thing looks like a really weak attempt at churning up controversy over a bogus issue to generate publicity for Quirky. It might have seemed like a good idea, but in retrospect, it looks really weak. That's too bad, because (as stated earlier), I really like Quirky as a concept, but focusing on whose copying whom when they could spend their time designing, innovating and building, just seems like a really weak move.