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.

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Companies: makeway

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Comments on “Bad Patents Getting In The Way Of A Fun Toy; Or Why I Had To Teach My Kids About How Patents Ruin Everything”

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Rocky says:

Re: Re: Re:

There are certainly a plethora of prior art, but as we know, invalidating patents is expensive and this guy has to comply or being sued which is also expensive and spending kickstarter-money on a lawsuit isn’t really what the backers paid for.

It sucks.

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jono793 (profile) says:

Re: found it

And what a sight it is to behold!

A light & speaker setup, triggered by a marble running over a switch.

Let’s all marvel at this astounding invention! Truly, a patent monopoly is justified. How else are we supposed to protect this important innovation?

An innovation, by the way, that could be (and I suspect, has regularly has been) figured by any eight-year-old with a basic school electronics set!

ECA (profile) says:

Re: Re: found it

designed long ago, Same as the Tilt system, SAME as the Mercury switch, Same as a mechanical balance system,same as some alarm systems use.

What a wasted patent.
And to think, it happened HOW long ago, a few months?
I would find the person who submitted it. I would wonder if its someone WHO worked on this project, and left.

That or this is a sham.

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PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re: Why didn't you teach your kids the VALUE of creating NEW

Hating the abuse and misuse of the patent system is not the same as hating patent. People with nuanced opinions can broadly support the idea of patents, but dislike the way they’re badly implemented in reality.

But, then, if you were trying to honestly have a conversation about the facts and opinions stated, you wouldn’t be rambling to yourself about the current state of the spam filter.

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Anonymous Coward says:

I liked this story. You should call it "the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree".

Of course you teach your kids about the evils of patents. You get them to focus on the bad men with bad patents, that’s really good parenting (not). If you had an OUNCE of American blood running your veins, you would teach your kids how to INVENT. How to contribute the electric light bulb to humanity. How to contribute better zippers to humanity. How to boldly go where no man has gone before! Life is an adventure, and you can use your life to CREATE!

There are so many heroes that had patents – Abraham Lincoln, for example. Thomas Edison. More and more. On and on. The fact that you can zip your fly easily is a testament to great inventors that went before you.

Bad men with patents. What an idiot you are. Are you going to ban boo because some of them are bad? How stupid can you be?

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That One Guy (profile) says:

I can but look on in awe at the sheer innovation and genius required to create a motion sensor attached to a couple of lights, truly such brilliance deserves nothing less than a patent and lesser minds can but bask in the glory and pay their respects in the form of licensing fees for an idea that they never could have come up with on their own.

Anonmylous says:

This link is to information on filing for an ex parte review of the patent by the USPTO. If you feel strongly that this patent should not have been granted, feel free to examine the evidence and step up to do something about it. Another commenter found the patent in question in this article above and it does not look like much more than "triggering a switch with an object does X" which marble enthusiasts (and many other fields) have done forever. Rube Goldberg machines do this regularly. However for this review, they only accept other patents and published devices.

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