For many inventors, creating a machine that’s functional as well as popular can feel like striking gold, even if the actual material reward for their work isn’t exactly golden. That’s the situation Shane Chen found himself in since inventing the “hoverboard,” a two-wheeled, Segway-like vehicle that doesn’t quite float but has nevertheless been flying off the shelves. Unfortunately for Chen, many consumers are buying hoverboards from companies that have not paid him for his patented design. Instead, consumers are taking advantage of the flood of Chinese knockoffs that have poured into the market since Chen’s invention first took off.
Marketed under the brand name Hovertrax, Chen initially produced a few thousand boards that took a little while to start selling well. But soon after they became a hit, he was muscled out of the market by knockoffs that sold for less than a quarter of the Hovertrax’s $1,000 price tag. While Chen admits his model is expensive, he says the cost is necessary to ensure the product works safely and effectively. Many bootleg models use weak motors and low quality batteries, leading to unstable machines that cause riders to fall. Some cheap hoverboards can even catch fire if overused, which is why most airlines have banned them from flights.
With these faulty hoverboards weighing heavy on his mind, Chen visited China in December 2015 to see their production with his own eyes. “I visited some of the knockoff factories,” said Chen. “They actually thanked me for having the imagination to invent it. They understand they’ve infringed my patent but they know there’s nothing I can do.” All told, these factories have made more than a million bootleg hoverboards, with more coming down the line every day. Still, the people who rankle Chen the most are the retailers who sell these unlicensed products with no questions asked. For now he’s fighting to keep these stores from stocking knockoffs while also suing domestic producers for infringement. Taking on the entire Chinese bootleg industry, though, will likely be impossible. “It is very discouraging,” said Chen. “The patent system is not working if something is popular. With something like Hovertrax, the patent is almost useless.”
- Would Chen have been safer from knockoffs if he patented his design while working for a major corporation?
- Do Chinese regulators have any motivation to crack down on bootleggers? Do you think the knockoff industry affects Chinese manufacturing as a whole?