Saturday, August 18, 2012

Information regarding JetBeam

In doing some background research for the JetBeam RRT-01 review, I tracked down some leads and made an interesting discovery.  I don't want to include it in the review because I have a policy of evaluating products as products and not really worrying about the company or the people behind the product.  I would make an exception if the company was, for example, a wholly owned subsidiary of a company owned by a drug cartel or something equally bad, but by in large I try to leave the controversies out of my review process.  Some people dislike Mick Strider.  I could care less so long as he makes a good product.

With that said, this information is important enough for me to bring to people's attention, but not so bad that I would not consider reviewing or purchasing a JetBeam product.  You should know about it, but I want to keep the review free of any information relating to things other than the product itself.

Background

JetBeam and Nitecore are brands owned by a parent company called Sysmax Industries.  They are based in Guangdong, China.  They sell flashlights, flashlight accessories, batteries, and battery chargers through many of the normal American retail outlets.  They also made a one time deal with Don McLeish, aka McGizmo.

Don McLeish, as many of you know, is a custom flashlight designer, in my opinion, the best in the world.  He regularly produces high end custom lights that sell for $500 a piece and routinely appreciate in value.  I own one of these lights, a McGizmo Haiku, and it is quite frankly perfect.  Don is very good at what he does, in part because of his innovative features.  In particular, he has a knack for developing actuation mechanisms.  One such mechanism is called the Piston Drive system.  It uses a metal sleeve around the battery to conduct power to the head and emitter.  Normally that power is channeled through the body of the light itself.  By isolating that circuit in the sleeve, the Piston Drive system improves energy delivery and makes activation more reliable.  It is, by all accounts (and in my experience, I have had two PD lights), a very unique and very good idea.

Soon after the Piston Drive system was developed and implemented in custom lights it appeared on a series of lights from Sysmax brand Nitecore.  Sysmax gave Don a one-time payment for permission to use his Piston Drive actuation mechanism.  After that they used it in their EX and D series lights, as they do to this day.  They modified the PD system, making work more like a clicky than a momentary on device that the original PD lights had.  They called this modified PD actuation method the Smart PD.  I liked both versions of the PD system, but I probably liked the original version better than the Smart PD.  Either way, they were almost functionally identical, so picking a winner is not important.

After borrowing the PD system, Sysmax appropriated two other McGizmo features or designs--first they use a pocket clip that is virtually identical to the McGizmo clip (at least in terms of material and appearance--both are made of Ti, but the Sysmax clip is much flimsier).  Here is a side by side comparison between the McGizmo clip and the Sysmax clip:

IMG_0002

More on this later.

Intellectual Property Law Primer

Intellectual property is a hot topic in the law.  It is one of the places where litigation results in damage awards in the billions, which is, perhaps, why it is a hot topic in the law.  It can sound complicated and be complicated, but the basic principles are pretty simple (lawyers have a knack for making things more complicated than it really is, it is a form of job security).  Like physical property, your car or your house, you have rights to your ideas.  These rights, if properly exercised, protect your ideas and the creations that stem from those ideas.  There are four primary methods of protecting ideas, ranging from very formal to very informal.  They are as follows:

1.  A Patent (most formal)
2.  A Copyright
3.  A Trademark
4.  A Trade Secret (least formal)

Copyrights, trademarks, and trade secrets aren't relevant to this discussion, so I will skip them, but patents are, so here is a little more information.

A patent is a form of idea protection that is based on registration of ideas and their explanations with the US Government's Patent Office.  The idea of a patent was referenced in the Constitution (Article 1, Section 8(8)), so it has long and powerful roots in the US.  How the patent works though has changed over time, as has how long its protections stay in place.  A person is awarded a patent for an idea if they can meet the following four-part test:

1. The idea must be patentable (Isiah Berlin couldn't, for example, patent his idea of negative liberty)
2. The idea must be novel (that is new, again, because lawyer's can't just say "new")
3. The idea must be non-obvious (more on this below)
4. The idea must result in processes or devices that are useful (a Rube Goldberg Mouse Trap isn't useful and thus can't be patented)

Non-obviousness is the big issue in most patents.  Something can't just be new, like the 2012 version of the Toyota Camry, it has be new in a way that is significantly different from what has come before it. 

In the case of the Piston Drive system, knowing what I know about flashlights (which, on the technical side, is not that much), I would say it is truly non-obvious.  While it is a method of completing a circuit for current, like any flashlight switch, the way it does it is completely different from what came before.  The Smart PD system is really not much different from the normal PD system.  In fact, the differences come not in how the circuit is made (which is what makes the PD system so interesting and unique), but in how the emitter interprets the completion of that circuit.  In a PD light the emitter gets the current and turns on.  In a Smart PD light the emitter gets the current (or more accurately a computer chip gets the current) and it does a number of different things with that current depending on how long the input lasts, among other things.  Really the difference is in the head of the light, not its method of delivering power.  The PD and the Smart PD deliver power, i.e. complete the circuit, in exactly the same way.   

The "Borrowed" Ideas

Prior to doing the RRT-01 review I sent an email to McGizmo and asked him about two elements of the light that are similar to his designs.  First, was the clip, as seen above.  Second, was the scalloped head.  Look at the head of the RRT-01.  Now look at the head of the of the Ti PD-S:





They are a bit longer on the McGizmo light, but they are configured and shaped the exact same.  Then there is the PD system, which Sysmax uses on its Nitecore lights, not on the RRT-01.  So that is three ideas all from McGizmo.  My concern was that these three ideas were simply stolen.  They weren't, well at least one of them wasn't.

Don informed me that he has no patents on any of his ideas.  He really didn't care, and after all living in Hawaii, tinkering around with sweet lights and scuba diving all day, who can blame him, right?  So a while ago Sysmax (with help from 47s David Chow, who eventually ended his affiliation with Sysmax and started his own brand) approached him about the PD design, gave him some money as a licensing fee.  Boy, that is pretty darn nice.  Technically they didn't have to do that because there was no patent protection on the PD design.  But then they did something I think is a little more than underhanded.  THEY PATENTED THE SMART PD SYSTEM.  Huh?  Where is the non-obviousness?  The guy at the patent office was asleep at the switch, literally in this case, because the Smart PD is less different from the PD system than the 2012 Camry is from the 2011 model.  Sysmax's move here, I think, is really total horseshit.

But then it got worse.  They simply stole the pocket clip design.  Again, no patent protection, but this time no licensing fees or even credit given to Don.  Just a total rip off.  And having seen them both in person, I can tell you they are identical in size and appearance, with the Sysmax clip just being flimsier.  And then there are the scallops/heat sinks.  Again, a blatant rip off.


What you Need to Know

Here is what you need to know and you can figure out how much it influences your purchasing decisions.  Nothing Sysmax did, so far as I can tell, is illegal.  There are no patent infringements going on.  It is clear, to me at least, that the Smart PD patent was granted by the US Patent Office, assuming that it was a US patent (which they almost always are even for inventions made outside the US because US markets are more lucrative and the patent protection more stringent) in clear error.  It is not nonobvious.  But that has nothing to do with Don and is more a commentary on the broken US Patent system, which is crying out for reform.

But Sysmax did steal someone's ideas.  They did take advantage of a situation.  And they did ripped off more than one idea.  They took three.  Finally, even though they gave Don money, which is honorable, they then turned around and patented something they did not make entirely on their own.  That leaves a poor taste in my mouth.  You figure out how much it bothers you.

Rumor has it they have also "borrowed" some tech from CoolFall, but that has not been confirmed nor has the relevant light been released, so far as I know.

Finally, in a completely unrelated piece of information, JetBeam has refused to even return my emails when I request a review sample.  I am not so arrogant as to think I deserve a review sample, but at least a kind "not now" email would be nice.  Spyderco sent me one when I asked for a review sample a year ago and they are probably bugged by people looking for review samples more than JetBeam is. 

RRT-01 review on the way.  Just thought you should know.  

5 comments:

  1. Hmm, very interesting. This reminds me a little of the whole Spyderco IP debacle (ie, they don't have any patents on the thumb hole - a useful invention like a thumb hole would not qualify for TM protection - therefore people are allowed to use the thumb hole even if some feel it is in bad taste).

    It seems unfair, but when you don't go through the channels unfortunately this sort of thing can happen, and does happen. It's unfortunate - especially because patent protection can be very expensive for a serial inventor. But I hope other inventors out there can learn from the lesson. At least Don is already on the beach, and not stuck miserable in some hell hole. Thanks for spreading the word.

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  2. I felt a bit like an investigative reporter, and the piece is different from what I normally write, so I hope people found it insightful.

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  3. Tony,
    Do you have the number of the patent? I'd like to take a look at the claims, but it didn't turn up in a quick search for "jetbeam" or "sysmax".

    It might be printed on the light somewhere, or in the accompanying documentation.

    Thanks!

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  4. "The guy at the patent office was asleep at the switch."

    Unfortunately this is par for the course in our US patent system. They usually just grant patents without much research or consideration at all, then if people have a problem they have to litigate. This is more of a problem with obvious patents being granted than for copies of other people.

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  5. Tony, appreciate the heads up. IP theft is a major problem and in these cases the only recourse might be one of consumer determination. With this knowledge, I won't buy Niteye or JetBeam torches.

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