On Thursday afternoon, two U.S. federal marshals showed up at the Consumer Electronics Show to conduct a raid. As a crowd gathered, the marshals packed up a one-wheeled skateboard on display at a Chinese company’s booth, as well as a sign and fliers promoting the product, and carried them away. It quickly became clear this wasn’t the usual CES publicity stunt. Staffers for the company, Changzhou First International Trade Co., were stunned.
Until that moment, Changzhou First International Trade was having a successful day. It wasn’t the only discount electronic skateboard dealer around, but passersby seemed taken by the design of its product, the Trotter. Instead of a board with a wheel on either end, like the popular hoverboards seen around the show, the Trotter looks like a seesaw with one big wheel in the middle. One man with a microphone and a camera stopped to take some footage; another quizzed employees about how fast the thing could go. The booth’s staff had trouble answering even basic questions in English, but they did their best.
CES, the world’s largest annual gadget conference taking place in Las Vegas this week, has always been full of small-bore dealers, many from China, selling products that look like something you might find in the discount bin at a Best Buy. The Consumer Technology Association, the trade group that puts on the show, welcomes them, as long as they pay the appropriate fees to rent a booth. Unoriginality is not against the rules.
But there is a long-running strain of resentment among companies that feel their patents and trademarks are being violated by low-cost competitors. CES’s legal department issues guidelines for those who feel wronged, and there’s even a list of rules for face-to-face disputes, including prohibitions on “loud, offensive or embarrassing confrontations” and a limit on the number of people who come along to accuse someone of ripping them off. The CTA asks companies not to bring more than two employees, one translator, and a lawyer.
The raid on the show floor, which involved federal law enforcement, was the result of a weekslong effort by Future Motion, a Silicon Valley startup that said it invented and patented a self-balancing electric skateboard that looks strikingly similar to the ones the marshals confiscated. The company sent about a half-dozen people from its legal team to accompany the marshals in the raid. The CTA declined to comment, as did a woman present during the raid who appeared to be in charge of the booth, saying the company intended to consult a lawyer. Lynzey Donahue, a U.S. Marshals official, said marshals served a court order at CES.
Future Motion’s Onewheel skateboard is the brainchild of Kyle Doerksen, a designer who had previously worked on electric bicycles. Several years ago, Doerksen quit his job at the design company Ideo, made a prototype, and rented a booth at CES 2014. The idea was popular enough that a Kickstarter campaign, launched on the same day, eventually raised $630,000. The following year, Doerksen came back with a more finished model. His company, which decided against getting a booth this year, is in town to meet with potential business partners.
Click here to read more.
SOURCE: Bloomberg, Joshua Brustein