smart-design

There were picket lines and protest signs. Blood was spilled, and Manhattan’s West 26th Street has been stained red. Well, metaphorically, anyway. If only the battle were over a mop instead of a dustpan.

Yes, you read that right. A dustpan, complete with dust-bunny-attacking bristles, kicked off a series of open letters and a bona fide rally in New York the morning of January 21. Quirky, a crowdsourced invention company that raised $68 million last year, has accused OXO, a consumer product company with more than 850 products on the market, of “ripping off” one of its inventors’ designs.

The design in question is the Broom Groomer, a teethed dustpan designed by Bill Ward to remove dust bunnies from a broom with each collection. Quirky accuses OXO, which shipped a similar product with a longer, upright handle and plastic, elevated “teeth” different from the Broom Groomer’s rubber, closer-to-the-floor chompers.

Quirky employees took their signs and followed the megaphone-toting CEO Ben Kaufman to the street in front of OXO’s office. Kaufman and company also put up a billboard on 28th Street, two blocks away from OXO’s office, to illustrate the similarities between both products. Quirky’s community responded positively to the stunt, with more than a few Quirkians (or whatever they want to be called) asking whether Quirky intended to take legal action.

OXO didn’t take up the torch and pitchforks …er, megaphone and picket signs, but the company did respond with an open letter, which draws attention to a patent issued to Addison F. Kelley in 1919. OXO writes that “any dustpan that includes teeth to effectively clean debris from broom or brush bristles will likely resemble each other, because each relies on the same, formerly patented, feature.”

The letter also illustrates similarities among OXO’s products and those manufactured by Quirky, including a hand rake, a stow-away hamper, a miniature broom, and a “compact” dustpan, each designed/developed and brought to market before similar products from Quirky.

The back-and-forth continued, with OXO “asking” why Quirky didn’t attempt to communicate behind the scenes before going so public, to which Kaufman replied that he had emailed OXO CEO Alex Lee and didn’t receive a response. Kaufman writes that Quirky’s IP address was blocked from oxo.com shortly after, and that Quirky “viewed [OXO's] actions as self-explanatory, and only after this point did we begin to make plans to act publicly.”

Despite lacking the, well, let’s go with “enthusiasm” of Quirky and its rally, OXO stood by its product and made a compelling argument for its relevance. Quoth the open letter:

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.

Kaufman stayed on the offensive, writing:

We believe it’s very important for the market to know who brought the concept of a commercially viable grooming dustpan to market.

We will not stand by quietly as Oxo attempts to use its larger size and resources to crowd out Quirky from building upon the intellectual capital it has worked so hard to establish.

It’s widely known that Oxo’s product development process (which leverages Smart Design, and other 3rd party design firms) takes about two years (almost exactly as long as our product has been available). Not 3/4 of a century. We don’t chalk this timing up to coincidence.

Both companies then dropped the public exchange, insisting it’s better to focus on product development than on “tit for tat” letter campaigns, rallies, and billboards, which should have been the point all along.

Look, it’s hard to differentiate consumer products. Most of us, myself included, don’t pay attention to the brand or weird, corporate name attached to every item we buy. There are some notable exceptions, as with the Ninja blender or Kitchen-Aid cake mixers, which enjoy powerful branding advantages, but, on the whole, one miniature broom or teeth-bearing dustpan is hardly distinguishable from another.

None of the inventions mentioned by either Quirky or OXO would have existed if someone else hadn’t come up with the broom, dustpan, rake, or clothes hamper. And those people probably had similar problems with copycats and iterative products (though without the benefit of the Web to air their grievances), yet there are no great broom wars.

While Quirky’s decision to stand up for its inventors is admirable, the best way for the company to prove itself to inventors is to focus on developing and releasing new products, not taking to the streets with some signs and a megaphone. Both Quirky and OXO are in a business built almost entirely on improving that which came before, finding new ways to make life easier by tweaking and re-imagining tools that have already been developed. As frustrating as it may be, the world is able to support two broom-cleaning dustpans.