For 16 years, purveyors of dildos and vibrators have seen their dreams crushed by lawsuits owing to a 2002 patent that covers the fundamental technology behind computer-controlled sex toys. The transgression? Launching their products after the patent went into effect.
Patents have long encouraged creativity by protecting ideas and research from theft and supporting those who spend years developing genuinely novel technologies and designs. Sex too inspires creativity — from positions and styles to external devices — to enhance the experience or to avoid pregnancy. The so-called teledildonics patent, however, has been leaving brilliant inventors frustrated, and all that is about to end. On Aug. 17, the patent will expire, freeing innovative firms to unleash new toys to the market.
Originally obtained by Warren Sandvick and two others in 2002, the patent has twice changed hands. Tzu Technologies, the patent’s current holder, has repeatedly sued or threatened to sue firms that have created technologies ranging from open-source vibrators to remote hand-held devices. Many companies, unable to negotiate license terms (i.e., permission to use the tech covered by the patent), withdrew their plans under financial pressure. Tzu Technologies’ lawyers did not respond to requests for comment.
But with the patent expiring later this month, teledildonics innovators are preparing to bounce back. Soon, London-based MysteryVibe will release an internet-enabled men’s vibrator that doubles as a partner toy. Virtual-reality companies are developing new devices and games as the VR porn space increases in popularity. FookVR is creating a headset that connects vibrating penis sleeves with vibrators and also syncs to the movements of avatars on a screen. And Intimuse, a California-based startup, has developed haptic technologies that re-create the sensation of touch with devices that simulate a penis or a vagina. For years, the company has been designing around the teledildonics patent, says John McCoy, CEO of Intimuse. But not anymore.
These companies also no longer need to worry about the risks two Georgia Tech students faced when, in 2015, they created the Mod, an open-source vibrator that could sync with a partner’s heartbeat, be controlled by a banana or operated with a nipple piercing. Threatened with a lawsuit by Tzu, the students held back their plans. Fresh technologies won’t find themselves mired in courtroom battles that even established companies haven’t been able to avoid. In 2017, for example, Lelo, a Swedish-based company, was sued for its remote-controlled vibrator — as was Hong Kong–based SayberX for its masturbation sleeve.
“Tzu Technologies had a chilling effect on the industry,” says Kyle Machulis, who consulted with Comingle, the company that made the Mod.
The term “teledildonics” was coined 28 years ago by futurist Howard Rheingold to describe sex toys remotely controlled via computer. Today’s teledildonics come in different forms, such as a dildo controlled by an app or a sleeve-style device and a vibrator with the movements of one transmitted to the other — when the vibrator penetrates the vagina, the sleeve automatically squeezes the penis in response.
Patents typically allow creators of a unique and useful invention to protect it for 20 years. It’s a “give-and-take” deal — to encourage people to spend time and resources on the invention of new technologies, the government grants exclusive use to the inventor for a period of time via a patent. But because Tzu and the previous patent owners have had these powers while never manufacturing a sex toy themselves, they’re referred to as “patent trolls” by critics.
One way around the patent was for companies to license it from Tzu, as Dutch firm Kiiroo did, according to news reports. Some have carved out whole new portfolios of patents and patent applications — 67 in all for Intimuse — by working around Tzu’s patent. But that’s arduous and not everyone can afford it.
For small companies, the threat of an “international lawsuit looming over you” is debilitating, the creators of the Mod wrote on their website in February 2016. The costs of defending oneself could be more than a million dollars, they suggested. There was an era when grad students were designing sex toys, and Tzu Technologies put a halt to it, says Machulis, who has created his own open-source sex toy programming software and is a teledildonics blogger.
At least one company successfully fought a lawsuit from Tzu. Kickstarter, the mainstream crowdfunding platform, was sued in 2015 for hosting a crowdfund campaign for a teledildonic device. Kickstarter resisted, and the patent owner quickly capitulated. Many other lawsuits have been settled without the disclosure of terms.
Though most experts view patents as vital to protecting creativity, the expiration of the teledildonics patent may actually spark innovation within the sex toy industry, says David Parisi, an associate professor of emerging media at the College of Charleston. With the patent behind them, “they should be able to devote more resources” to designing innovative devices, he says, “free from the stress and financial drain of defending against overly broad claims of infringement.”
That won’t solve the myriad other challenges the industry continues to face. Just this past May, sex toy–maker and retailer Unbound had to battle New York City’s MTA to be allowed to advertise its products in the subway, even though erectile dysfunction products were already plastered throughout the city’s subway trains. Parisi says the “ongoing stigmatization” of sex tech leaves him suspicious that “we’re on the cusp of some great mainstreaming of teledildonics.” And Machulis worries that other sex-tech patents could replace the challenges the teledildonics patent posed for innovators.
Whether or not Machulis and Parisi are right, the teledildonics patent’s expiration signals a new beginning. Machulis is planning a party to celebrate, and he won’t be alone — the race will once again be on to create the best possible orgasmic experience.
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