iRobot Drops Another Competitor... for Now

If you ever thought iRobot's (NASDAQ: IRBT  ) defense and security bots were the only ones who could put up a fight, think again.

On Friday, the company's popular Roomba robotic vacuums downed yet another competitor... at least temporarily in the courtroom, anyway. 

More specifically, on Friday, iRobot announced it had obtained preliminary injunctions through the District Court of Dusseldorf in Germany against Shenzhen Silver Star, the Chinese business behind the competing MyGenie line of "Intelligent Floor Vacuums." The court, for its part, found three of Shenzhen's vacuums infringed four separate iRobot patents.

Surprisingly enough, the preliminary injunctions had already been served on Shenzhen Silver Star, as "infringing goods" were seized from the company Friday at Berlin's 2013 annual IFA consumer electronics show.

Of course, as fellow Fool Rich Smith pointed out, this is only a temporary respite to limit the damage to iRobot while the case runs its course, and Shenzhen Silver Star is free to appeal the decision.

But while I'm no patent lawyer, a quick glance at one of the infringing models, the MyGenie XR210, appears to be a near carbon copy of several of iRobot's most popular vacuums:

MyGenie XR210 robotic vaccuum, Image source: MyGenie.com.sg

But remember, this certainly isn't iRobot's first, second, or even third patent rodeo.

In July, the company also initiated legal action in Germany against four separate international companies for violation of five of iRobot's European patents. As I noted at the time, at least one of the vacuums in that case was just as difficult to tell apart from iRobot's popular 650 model:

Image sources: iRobot.com, Solac.com

Prior to that, as iRobot's press release also notes, the company achieved a successful settlement with New Majestic S.p.A. in 2011 after enforcing two of its Roomba patents in Italy.

And the Roomba isn't the only bot that iRobot's competition has tried to copy. Way back in 2007, iRobot's military-centric PackBot had to assert its legal clout to take down competitor Robotic FX, in a borderline-awkward case that involved Robotic FX's founder -- who also happened to be an ex-iRobot employee -- digging through iRobot's trash in an effort to steal trade secrets and build a competing military solution.

Of course, that still doesn't do much to negate the broader threat from much larger players in the space, like Northrop Grumman, who happens to know a thing or two about truly innovating in the field of robotics while abiding by generally accepted intellectual property rules. In fact, that's why I heartily agree with Rich Smith, who recently made the argument that iRobot needs to step out of its comfort zone and develop new, better robots to stay ahead of the game.

After all, apart from its impressive efforts in the field of telepresence of late, I'm sure I'm not alone in worrying that iRobot's consumer offerings simply haven't evolved enough since they were introduced in 2002 to really offset the threat of obsolescence from a truly disruptive, yet-to-be-discovered competitor down the road.

In the meantime, however, as the Roomba continues to grow more popular despite its perceived lack of innovation, iRobot simply has no choice but to step out and defend its position against today's blatant copycats.

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  • Report this Comment On September 08, 2013, at 8:35 AM, barryb00 wrote:

    iRobot ---> Start lawsuits to crush competition.

    iPhone---> Start lawsuits to crush competition.

    iPad ---> Start lawsuits to crush competition.

    I wonder if iApple should start an iSuit against iRobot because they invented the leading "i"

  • Report this Comment On September 09, 2013, at 11:38 AM, TMFSymington wrote:

    @barryb00, I'll leave exploring Apple's lawsuits for another article, but don't make the mistake of believing iRobot's lawsuits are frivolous attempts at preventing its competition from thriving.

    To the contrary, so far iRobot has only used the legal system to put the kibosh on robotic solutions built by companies which have blatantly (and seemingly without conscience!) copied iRobot's patented technology.

    I'm all for healthy competition -- especially considering it encourages innovation -- but agree with iRobot that everybody needs to play by the perfectly-reasonable IP rules.

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