Bad Patents Getting In The Way Of A Fun Toy; Or Why I Had To Teach My Kids About How Patents Ruin Everything
from the well-that-sucks dept
Last year I backed a very cool looking crowdfunding project for my kids. It’s called Makeway, and seems like the coolest ever possible marble run setup. Marble runs are already cool, but since basically everyone in my family will spend hours just staring at some of the more advanced marble run setups in museums (or building them in the more hands on museums, or much simpler ones with just home kits), this seemed like a really amazing project to be able to create a museum-level marble run in your own home. The project launched right before the pandemic went into full swing, and, like tons of crowdfunding projects, it’s had some difficulties along the way. Of course, unlike many such projects in which the creators go quiet and hide behind silence as they deal with the difficulties, the guy behind Makeway sends out incredibly and intricately detailed novella length updates, going deep into the challenges and (usually!) the solutions.
Indeed, that part has been kind of fascinating — especially to my kids, who actually get super excited each time a new update is sent and want to hear all the details of the project (indeed, learning about how difficult it is to create a product like this, and the effort the creators are making to get past those hurdles, seems like a good lesson for kids to learn). While they’ve been disappointed that the shipping of the product has been delayed, the updates are still neat, and I have every confidence that the product will eventually be delivered.
Except… not all of it. The latest update gave me a new lesson to teach my kids: just how stupid patents can be, and how they can mess up cool products. Buried in the middle of this latest epic update was one hurdle that simply could not be overcome: threats from patent holders. For a freaking marble run piece.
It’s not a critical piece by any means — it was more of a fun piece. Indeed, they called it the “party” piece. Basically as a marble would zip by, a fan would spin, and it could light up with a message and play music. Neat:
The Makeway guys really liked this part too:
The party part is our pride. We invested to make it sleek, elegant, always working with no buttons or switches, and mostly – working fluently, with a slight touch of the running marble. We hired a composer to make the music, we added our vocals to the track, we programmed the fan light to show Makeway’s logo, we placed an order and fully paid for 2 IC’s (the brain of the part) – one for the lights and one for the music, and to our delighted surprise, all this effort came up to a really satisfying part, that we included in many of our videos. We were very happy and even surprised when all were composed together into one working piece, and we were excited to start producing it to be able to ship it soon to our backers…
But, it’s not to be. Apparently, they were threatened by someone with a newly granted patent (they don’t reveal who it was, other than that it’s by a competing marble run company — though they do reveal that the lawyers refer to it as the ‘205 patent, meaning those are the last 3 digits of the patent number —
but a bit of poking around by me has failed to find the relevant patent Update: clever commenters have found the patent) from someone who claims that this little toy violates their patent:
Unfortunately, some time ago we got a letter stating that we are infringing, with this piece, a patent that was approved a few months ago and that is owned by a marble-run company. The patent describes a part that, when triggered by a marble, turns on light, and/or sound, and/or sends RF signals.
The Makeway guy says he explored a variety of options, but with the other company demanding a huge licensing fee — on top of all the other challenges that this project has come across, it just couldn’t work out.
A company at this gentle stage of stabilizing it’s financial standards, in our size and with our resources, could waste all of it’s assets trying to defend it’s activity in those types of lawsuits. As hard as it is for us, we just can’t take the risk to get lost in lawsuits instead of fulfilling Makeway and taking care of it’s future. we had to sacrifice our best part in order not to get in financial troubles that might (and most likely) risk the future of Makeway.
And that’s why, this week, I (for the first time) had to explain to my kids just what patents are, and just how damaging they can be. It’s something I’ve obviously written about for years, but didn’t expect that it would impact my kids at this age. And, yes, in the grand scheme of things, Makeway not being able to deliver this one fun, but not essential, part is not the end of the world. But it really does show how ridiculous patents are. Why does such a thing need a patent? It doesn’t. It’s clearly an idea that multiple people were coming up with. Just let everyone develop their own versions and compete in the marketplace.