- January 21, 2013, Stephanie Millman
While walking the floor at CES the other week, I was astonished at the blatant and apparently acceptable invention rip-offs that were being presented on the floor. One of my favorite brands, iRobot (robotic vacuum cleaners), had at least 3 competing companies selling products that looked and functioned almost exactly like their flagship “Roomba” product. The most well known rip-offed products on the floor, of course are the Apple iPhone and iPad products. There were TONS of mostly Asian companies showing multiple iPad and iPhone look-alikes for less money, including Samsung. Samsung won a most of a legal battle brought by Apple, which resulted in the U.S. government allowing copycat products even when there are patents in place. Apparently patent laws are much more relaxed than our trademark or copyright laws. It’s confusing for the marketplace.
In trademark law, you cannot have the same mark or product name for the same industry and sometimes that can be extremely vast (think industrial manufacturing). In copyright law, you cannot take any part of a written or designed piece of work and use it without permission. What trademark and copyright law protects is the confusion in the marketplace and of course, the originator’s work. In patents, confusion is fine… you just cannot make an EXACT copy of the innovator’s product. So a little tweak in the interface and a copycat product is ready for market. In terms of the Roomba vacuum cleaner, one of their competitors just added an additional sensor. The iPhone was copied by Samsung and the look and feel is exactly the same – they just use a similar but different operating system.
Has your competitor reversed-engineered your product, added a feature or two and then slapped on their logo and called it theirs? Just think of the money they saved to not have to create, design and launch! The only way to not have your market swallowed up by these competitors trying to drive your product down the commodity road is to champion continuous innovation. Always stay one step ahead of the game and go for the niche market with high margins. If that is not your forte and if the government isn’t going to have our back on innovation, then the only shot at eliminating this behavior is if the buyers of our products get angry and stop buying the knock-offs. Think about this and your personal behavior as you shop. Because every time you buy a ripped-off innovation, you are voting to continue to approve of this behavior.