The dream of teledildonics, or having sex over the internet using remote-controlled sex toys, has been around since the 1990s. Every once in a while, new companies try to perfect the technology, so that you can enhance your sexting with a little something extra. But now the dream is about to die — thanks to patent trolls.
The U.S. patent office isn’t perfect. Sometimes they grant what’s called an “overbroad” patent that covers way too many things, and eventually the patent gets re-examined and revoked. But sadly, getting that re-exam and revocation takes time, money and lawyers. Which is what patent trolls count on. They buy overbroad patents, sue people for infringing, and bet that their victims won’t have the money to challenge the patent itself. So the victims just pay the fees, and the trolls get rich.
And now, patent trolling has come to teledildonics tech.
First, here’s the patent, which is for a “Method and device for interactive virtual control of sexual aids using digital computer networks.” In other words, controlling a sex toy with any kind of computer network.
This crazily overbroad description from the patent filing explains what’s covered by the patent:
It is a primary object of the invention to provide a system that permits an operator to have interactive control of a sexual aid used to stimulate a recipient that is remotely located from the operator. It is a further object of the invention to provide a system in which an operator may stimulate a recipient over currently existing computer networks, such as the Internet. It is yet another object of the invention to provide a multi-media event, such as a prerecorded video feed, that automatically operates a stimulation aid located at a user interface.
Here is a helpful illustration from the patent application.
So basically, if you have a sex toy that can be remotely-controlled using “existing computer networks” (that’s how stupidly broad this thing is) OR controlled by a video on your computer, then it is supposedly covered by this foolish, foolish patent.
And that’s why patent trolling company TZU recently bought it, and promptly tried to sue a bunch of sex toy startups for infringement. The story broke yesterday at Metafetish, where hardware engineer Kyle Machulis explained how the lawsuits would likely unfold. Ars Technica’s Joe Mullin lists all six of the companies being sued:
Comingle, a company that is taking pre-orders for its product, a programmable dildo called the Mod.
Internet Services LLC, which creates RealTouch, a male masturbation device, and also offers the “RealTouch interactive” service. Read the complaint (PDF). RealTouch’s website says the company is shutting down in September, and it hasn’t sold devices since January 2014.
Holland Haptics, which creates the Frebble, a Kickstarter-backed project that suggests nothing more salacious than virtual hand-holding. Frebble’s Kickstarter page suggests it has just recently been delivered to Hong Kong-based backers. Here’s the Holland Haptics complaint (PDF), which also names Kickstarter as a defendant.
Winzz, which creates the LovePalz vibrator, another product available for “pre-order.” The author of the sex-toy blog Metafetish, which first noted the TZU lawsuits, pointed out that LovePalz said it started shipping products in 2013, but no one has seen the device actually working.
Vibease, which makes a Bluetooth-controlled vibrator. It appears to be the only one of the six companies sued by TZU that’s actually selling a product.
My favorite part is that TZU decided to name Kickstarter in one of their complaints, too. That’s right — they’re going to try to sue Kickstarter for hosting a project that falls under a patent so broad it literally covers any remote-controlled sex toy that is vaguely related to a computer network or media on your computer. If I created a device that makes a kissy sound in your ear over wifi, it would be covered by this patent.
But Metafetish’s Machulis sees a possible bright light at the end of the troll tunnel:
One possible good outcome of this would be the establishment of prior art for teledildonics. Assuming a product created before August 1997 was found, the defendants could file an inter partes review to the patent office to possibly invalidate the patent (and basically ‘pause’ the case while the patent review happened), which would open the field to all sorts of new products.
In other words, if enough people can get together to challenge this patent, we might actually see a lot of fantastic innovation in the world of networked sex toys (or even networked toys for kissy noises). All we really need is for someone to find “prior art,” or evidence that there were devices that controlled a sex toy via computer network before this patent was filed.
No matter what happens, you know things have truly reached absurd proportions when patent trolls fight the powers of teledildonics.