UPDATED: 2 December 2016 (see italic section below)
Last week the United States International Trade Commission confirmed in a press release they have instigated a new investigation into twelve companies. Segway, Inc. had requested in August for the USITC begin an investigation into patent infringement by Airwheel, Chic and various other brands under Section 337 of the Tariff Act. The list of companies being investigated also includes retailers such as Hovershop (California) and Powerboard (Arizona).
Segway, Inc.’s previous complaints under Section 337 have already achieved success, including a General Exclusion Order that empowers US Customs to prevent imports of self-balancing personal transporters into USA.
Consequently, most ‘hoverboards’ and copy-cat ripoffs of the Segway Personal Transporter have disappeared from US retail stores during the first half of 2016. Further, they are rapidly disappearing from sale in many EU member states, and from the New Zealand marketplace too (leaving owners of infringing brands of devices without recourse to parts and service).
Segway, Inc. first complained to the US ITC in September 2014 and named an initial list of infringers. In our follow-up article we wrote “Companies that could be added include Airwheel (S3) and Shenzhen Xingli, because they also produce almost identical copies” so it is of little surprise this has now come to pass.
Copy-cat manufacturers have long ripped off the design language pioneered by Segway’s engineers and designers. The following chart illustrates examples of the wholesale copying of Segway’s original external design ideas:
- the sexy swerve of the i2 and x2 LeanSteer Frame
- the positioning of Segway’s red ‘FlyGuy’ logo in a circular shape at the base of the LeanSteer Frame
- the lower Black half and Silver upper half of the LeanSteer Frame on off-road models
- the design and shape of the Fender Frames (lifting handles) and Fenders
- the forged, open two-pronged design of the i2 SE and x2 SE Stem, and twin-fastener attachment of the lower half of the SE LeanSteer Frame to the Stem
With its ‘Mars Rover’ S3 model, Airwheel aped the design language embodied in the Ninebot PTR model E. It was a textbook example of ripping off a sleek, beautiful and original design with cheaper materials in a near-identical style.
Ninebot is a sub-brand under the Segway Group, and no doubt the Ninebot designers are delighted to see Airwheel finally being taken to task for such blatant and outrageous copying of their creative ideas.
— UPDATED INFORMATION added on 2 DECEMBER 2016 —
Since writing this article we’ve discovered Ninebot filed a design patent for its PTR model in China in 2014, and has successfully sued Airwheel for infringement in 2015:
On September 21, 2015, Ninebot announced that it filed a patent infringement lawsuit against Airwheel as Airwheel S3 issued on September 22, 2014 was suspected to infringe Ninebot appearance design patent, dual wheels self balancing electric scooter CN201330266398. X patent, hereinafter referred to as the 398 patent. Beijing intellectual property law court has accepted the case on July 17, 2015, and the indictment has been delivered to Airwheel on September 11.
“As early as June 20, 2013, the patent holder Ninebot has launched the 398 patent applications. It has gained authorization and make a public announcement on December 11, 2013, valid for 10 years.” Ninebot intellectual property department director said, “Airwheel, without the authorization of the patentee, secretly copied Ninebot two wheels electric scooter appearance design, suspected of infringing on the hand, wheel and dazzle color lamp, etc.”
In its submission to the court Ninebot provided the following comparative image as evidence of deliberate copying:
After receiving news of their success against Airwheel in court a Ninebot representative said: “…in China, self balancing electric scooter is still in the initial stage of development, and we welcome enterprises who have independent innovation ability to enter and push forward the development of the industry. But we have zero tolerance to enterprises that have irresponsible behaviors like copying and malicious competition….”
— original article continues below —
Segway, Inc. asserts that most – and very likely every – self-balancing personal transporter with one or more wheels infringes patents belonging to Segway, Inc. or DEKA Products. DEKA is Segway inventor Dean Kamen’s company and according to this April 2016 article and interview in the Wall Street Journal Kamen holds more than 400 patents. In its filings Segway, Inc. claims respondents have acted with knowledge or acted with wilful blindness when manufacturing infringing products.
In New Zealand, the earliest patents for self-balancing transporters were filed by DEKA in 1995. Philip Bendall and Segway New Zealand Limited have been advising the public about the patents that protect Segway products since 2003 via brochures, online, in published articles and interviews, during lectures to a wide range of audiences, and at hundreds of trade shows. Combined with the sensation that the iconic Segway Personal Transporter generated when it was first unveiled in 2001, our view is it is inconceivable that New Zealand importers and retailers could claim to be unaware the technologies that enable self-balancing devices would likely be protected by patents.