Recently, a company called Tzu Technologies, LLC began suing makers of sex toys for infringement of U.S. Patent No. 6,368,268. This resulted in more than a few news stories (and probably a few snickers as well). But the case also shows how our broken patent system is preventing innovation in many spaces, including those we don’t traditionally think about. Looking closely at the patent, and specifically at what Tzu Technologies actually claims to own, it is clear that this patent, regardless of its exciting subject matter, deserves to be called stupid.
Tzu Technologies’ patent, titled “Method and Device for Interactive Virtual Control of Sexual Aids Using Digital Computer Networks” is a patent related to “teledildonics.” Essentially, computer controlled sex toys.
Tzu Technologies recently sued (login req.) a bunch of small startups in the sex toy space, claiming they infringed this patent. Comingle, for example and according to their website, is a four-person team that is developing open-source sex technology. Also sued was Kickstarter, presumably for allowing another defendant, Holland Haptics, to raise money for their product the “Freeble.”
As this 1993 Chicago Tribune article shows, the idea of remotely stimulating a partner was nothing new in 1998 (the year the application for the patent was filed). Nor was it unknown how to do it. Howard Stern (in)famously engaged in some of his own teledildonics in the 1980s, that was later reenacted [NSFW] in his 1997 movie “Private Parts.”
Given this history, you might expect that, in 1998, patent applicants would need to come up with some new and non-obvious way of using a computer to control a sex toy. But like many patents that we have labeled “Stupid,” that’s not what happened. Or at least, that’s not what the inventors claimed.
Below is claim 8 of the patent, which Tzu Technologies seems to be asserting. This claim is ridiculously broad. Annotations, in bold, have been added to show just how broadly it can be read:
8. A stimulation system comprising:
[a] a hand-operable input device [a microphone] for generating a command signal [electrical signal] in response to an input [sound wave] received from a first user;
[b] a first user interface [the radio broadcast system] connected to said input device [the microphone], said first user interface generating a control signal [radio waves] based upon the command signal [electrical signal];
[c] a second user interface [a radio] remotely located from said first user interface [the radio broadcast system], said second user interface receiving the control signal [the radio waves]; and,
[d] a stimulation device [a stereo speaker] receiving the control signal [the radio waves] from said second user interface [the radio], said stimulation device imparting stimulation to a second user in response to the control signal [you get the idea].
Perhaps the Patent Office should have given Howard Stern a patent, given that the patent explicitly suggests that the “input device” can be a microphone.
Ultimately, claim 8 of this patent is nothing more than the idea of teledildonics, dressed up in “input devices” “signals” and “interfaces.” That’s what makes this patent, and these lawsuits, so frustrating. There was nothing novel, nonobvious, or even patentable about this claim. It never should have issued. Doing it with a computer (literally) does not make something patentable.
More and more, everyday items are incorporating software and networking technology. Unfortunately, that means more and more everyday items are at risk of being said to infringe overbroad, vague patents that never should have issued. As this patent shows, the problems with the patent system have the potential to impact many diverse fields, and until we find a way for small companies to quickly and efficiently shut down these patent trolls, we will continue to hurt innovators who are merely trying to make life more interesting.