OXO Shows The Right Way To Respond To Bogus 'Outrage' Over 'Copied' Product

from the we-didn't-copy-it-and-learn-how-innovation-works dept

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.

OXO explained:

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.

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Companies: oxo, quirky

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Comments on “OXO Shows The Right Way To Respond To Bogus 'Outrage' Over 'Copied' Product”

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39 Comments
Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

“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.”

Jason Kerr says:

Bill Ward and other Quirky people knew it was public domain and STILL trashed OXO

Check out the conversations from 2 years ago between the “inventor” and Quirky members/staff:

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: “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 (emphasis mine) can use this idea now, including us, we just can’t patent it ourselves.”

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Bill Ward and other Quirky people knew it was public domain and STILL trashed OXO

I hope someone forwards that to the patent examiner that they’ve got going over their ‘broom groomer’ patent application. The fact that they outright state that it’s public domain and know it, and are still trying to get it patented… that could lead to some awkward moments to say the least.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Bill Ward and other Quirky people knew it was public domain and STILL trashed OXO

Clarification: Bill Ward is the so-called “poor helpless inventor” poster boy. The other guy is a Quirky inventor and community member. Throughout the rest of the page several examples are given of existing products with the same design, including images–all this from two years ago, and now they want to pretend that OXO is a rip-off artist. They KNEW!

Anonymous Coward says:

I am not against a good shame every now and then but seriously, do all these people complaining that others ripped them off actually try harder to sell anything?

In my opinion people are learning how to deal with such things, is a tedious and tiresome process that should have been initiated when they were kids.

So what if somebody copied you?
So what if somebody else is making more money than you?

Grow up people, do your thing and don’t bother with what others are doing unless what they are doing is purposefully trying to harm you and by that I mean direct targeting you in a number of ways which copying is not one of them, just copying doesn’t cut it.

Suzanne Lainson (profile) says:

But of course if it were Coulton :-)

This post is more what I expect from people skeptical about claims of copying. That’s why the whole brouhaha over Coulton’s umbrage seemed a bit out of character for the tech community. Copying is going to happen. Not everyone is going to get credit. That’s the way things are headed. At some point people won’t even be discussing this stuff.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Well given Quirky ‘obviously’ copied the design already in existence(something they knew full well), and one that had been in the public domain for decades at that, their getting angry over someone ‘copying their design’ is rather hypocritical don’t you think?

Why, it’s almost Jobs-like when you think about it: ‘When we copy and innovate on designs and products made by others, it’s fine, but we will go nuclear if someone does the same with our stuff, as that’s just wrong!’

Some Other AC (profile) says:

Re: Re:

There is no obviousness to this. Quirky’s design is simply a dust pan with teeth to clean the broom. OXO, on the other hand, includes a recessed area to facilitate collection of dust, hair, etc… to include what the teeth knock off. Quirky got butt hurt over nothing. OXO did not sue or take any legal action. Quirky got their knickers in a twist over something stupid.

artp (profile) says:

Almost enough to make me buy OXO

But OXO has one fatal flaw. They can’t manufacture products without defects. I stopped buying OXO years ago after several pieces of kitchen utensils developed loose handles. That doesn’t sound too bad until you try cooking something and soapy water dribbles out of the handle into your food.
American manufacturing used to deliver products that were excellent from start to finish – from concept to packaging. We need to relearn those skills because the quarterly stock price driven attitudes at modern companies are killing our economy.

One exception that comes to mind – this is my first post anywhere written on a tablet – a Google/ASUS Nexus 7.

vilain (profile) says:

Quirky isn't so hot a startup

I bought a few things from them. Talking strictly about the company itself, it took WEEKS to fulfill my orders. And I finally had to email their CS person to find out where my stuff was. Apparently they can’t track orders with their processing system or provide shipping info. So they mailed me another item, which I got two weeks later for a total of 6 weeks to get something. What is this, 1960?Thankfully Target’s been carrying some of their stuff so I can bypass web-ordering.

Pricey, but nice, gifty things. That you have to wait for a while to get. Which precludes giving them as gifts.

Gregg says:

I was gonna say

“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. “

I recall using one of these back in the 80’s.

Fuck Patents they make the human race retarded.

MT (profile) says:

What everyone needs to understand is that the ideas AND designs are submitted by Quirky Members…even the product NAME. Quirky builds off of what has been submitted…they don’t just come up with it on their own.

OXO drawing comparisons and trying to lead everyone to believe Quirky has done the same thing is just absurd. The retracting rake is no more than a copy of an old product. I came across a very old one that someone was using to rake leaves a couple of years ago. It had a wooden handle and a lever to retract the rake prongs. I think the person said it was from the 50’s. A Quirky member who used a separate tool to push down leaves after being put in a trashcan wanted to make the process easier by combining tools.

OXO can’t claim rights to folded items too can they? There are many things out there that fold for storage. The example you referenced above is comparing a laundry hamper to a laundry basket. Two separate products, unlike comparing a dustpan to a dustpan. Quirky used my design suggestion for Unhampered (a member submitted name). I never saw or knew about a folding hamper like OXO references. I drew my inspiration from a folding colander which has nothing to do with laundry. I hated having to store laundry baskets because they take up a whole lot of room for nothing. I wanted to be able to tuck it out of the way when it wasn’t in use. Who stores a hamper? Don’t you literally start filling it back up the same day you empty (assuming you change clothes daily of course)?

Mini dustpan/broom combos are all over, but without any grooming teeth. How can OXO compare the two products when you can easily find these anywhere? Strangely familiar they say…right. It was just a natural line extension to Broom Groomer.

Inspiration can come from anywhere, but Quirky’s inspiration comes from it’s members and the ideas they submit.

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