Low End Theory: RC Helicopters Want to Be Free?



By Brendan I. Koerner

I'm probably about the only geek on Spaceship Earth who doesn't think CES is the frickin' bee's knees. Yeah, yeah, the iPhone's great and all—but c'mon, $499? Do you know how long I'd have to subsist on White Rose mac-'n-chesse in order to save that much? Alas, for a cheapskate like your humble narrator, CES is a sad annual reminder that much of what we crave in life is unattainable.

But if you look past the splashy 108-inch TVs and stacked booth babes, there's always a low-end story or two to track in Vegas. And this year, it's the brewing Battle of the RC Helicopters, a tale rife with accusations of piracy, marketing sleight-of-hand, and international legal intrigue. Oh yeah, and also sub-$40 electro-toys of a sort that make me wish I'd been born in the Nineties rather than the Seventies. The sordid story so far after the jump.

The saga begins with last year's debut of the PicooZ Micro RC Helicopter, produced by Hong Kong-based Silverlit Toys. Silverlit's North American distributor is Spin Master, a company familiar to viewers of TNT's "Primetime in the Daytime" lineup for its incessant Air Hogs commercials. Spin Master got the PicooZ out in time for the holidays, expecting fat sales among the low-end dads who really wanted to get Junior an RC chopper, but didn't want to dip into his beer money in order to do so.

Solid plan, except for the machinations of the Guangdong copycats in Silverlit's backyard—specifically in Shantou. Someone over there got a hold of the PicooZ's plans and started churning out lots of clones. When overseas toy stores started running out of PicooZ's as Christmas approached, fly-by-night distributors were only too happy to step into the breach with their knock-offs.

And how boldly they did step! Not content to simply offer a vague facsimile of the real thing—a tried-and-true pirating strategy—the cloners copied the PicooZ almost to the micrometer. Then, to add salt to the wound, they even copied the name—ladies and gentlemen, meet the PiccoZ, with two c's in lieu of two o's.

It's all fun and games until someone realizes that their pocket may be getting picked, of course. Silverlit basically went bonkers upon learning about the PiccoZ, ostensibly from customers who claimed to be dissatisfied with the knock-offs' quality. They pointed a finger at Hobbytron.com, a venture of Absolute Toy Marketing of Orem, Utah. Indeed, it doesn't take a genius to click through and realize that Hobbytron is gleefully selling the PiccoZ. So earlier this week, in the midst of the Hong Kong Toy & Games Fair that coincides with CES, Silverlit filed suit in America against Absolute, alleging a whole lotta trademark infringement.

Now here's where the CES connection comes in. The same day they got slapped with the suit, Absolute and its Hobbytron.com arm announced that they'd be showing off "its own branded Picco 3 micro RC helicopter" at Wynn Hotel and Casino. Huh? Is that all it takes to squash an international trade spat—change the Z to a 3?

Low End Theory: RC Helicopters Want to Be Free?

Maybe. I'm about as much of a legal scholar as Bubbles the Chimp, but Silverlit seems to have a halfway legitimate gripe here. But something tells me that Silverlit isn't 100 percent confident that legal remedies will save the day, as they're engineering their own name change—henceforth, the PicooZ will be the Havoc Heli. Brilliant—shouldn't take the Shantou knock-off factories more than 12 hours to change their printing equipment.

Even if Silverlit wins its legal battle against Absolute, there are just so many knock-offs out there—did I mention the PicoZ? (A full list of alleged copycats is available here.)

Okay, so Chinese pirates are the indestructible cockroaches of the electronics trade—yeah, yeah, film at 11. But I think this case does raise an important low-end moral quandary: at what point does a cheapskate's conscience overwhelm his primal desire for a good deal? No kids of my own, so didn't do any RC copter shopping this holiday season. But if I had, and I had the chance to purchase a PiccoZ for ten bucks less than the PicooZ, what would I have done? The choice is less morally confusing when one of the involved parties is a Corporate Colossus—if I see, say, a Samsung knock-off, I'm not gonna agonize over the morality of my decision to go cheap. But when it's one low-end manufacturer versus another? A much tougher call.

So my question to y'all this week, if you can somehow spare a few brain cells that aren't yet filled with visions of iPhones prancing about: have you ever felt guilty about buying a knock-off gadget, especially one that has obviously been pirated right down to the last detail? Or are you so skeeved out by The Man that you feel any dollar you can save is a righteous blow for the glorious revolution (or something like that)? Answer in comments, or drop me a line. Lord knows that I've felt lonely this week, with my Gizmodo brethren up to more important matters.

Brendan I. Koerner is a contributing editor at Wired and a columnist for both The New York Times and Slate. His Low End Theory column appears every Thursday on Gizmodo.

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