IRobot-Robotic FX Backgrounder: As A Key Ruling Nears, An Attempt to Clear Up Some Questions About the Case

10/10/07Follow @bbuderi

Heat knife. Hot-plate device. Welding tool. Welding fixture. What exactly was found in the dumpster? What exactly did Jameel Ahed admit to throwing out, and what does he say might be planted? What was the point of iRobot program manager Tom Frost’s testimony? What are the main issues before the judge?

I spent part of last weekend at the Sandwich (NH) Fair and let me tell you, the rides there are not as dizzying as the iRobot-Robotic FX case (or, really, cases). The Xconomy team—Wade, Rebecca, and I—have spent many hours poring through courtroom transcripts. Wade has spent many more hours in the courtroom itself. And yet we still find ourselves scratching our heads about what’s going on in some instances. A key ruling in the case—on iRobot’s request for a preliminary injunction against Robotic FX—might come in the next day or two. So in addition to enjoying some down time in recent days, we also went back to our notes and consulted some legal experts to try and clear up at least some of the confusion surrounding the developments and terminology in the case.

We won’t go over all the background here. But if you are one of the few folks new to this drama, here’s our original story about the dumpster-diving iRobot detectives. You can also read a detailed account of Robotic FX founder Ahed’s shredding of CDs and his allegations that some evidence might have been planted. And this is our last courtroom story, from last Wednesday, when the hearing on the preliminary injunction request wrapped up in U.S. District Court in Boston.

Now, let’s get down to the key questions on our minds, and from some of the comments we have received, maybe on yours, too.

What lawsuits were filed, what do they allege, and where do they stand?

IRobot filed two lawsuits on August 17, both concerning its “PackBot” military robot. One was a patent infringement suit filed in federal court in Alabama. Patent law requires you to sue somebody where they have a presence and have committed acts of alleged infringement. IRobot could have sued in Illinois, where Robotic FX is based, but often attorneys try not to sue people on their home turf, so to speak. Instead, iRobot chose Alabama in part because it is home to the U.S. Army’s Redstone Arsenal, where Robotic FX and iRobot both recently took part in trials to determine who was eligible for a military contract that Robotic FX ultimately won. Robotic FX, for its part, moved to transfer the case to U.S. District Court in Massachusetts and consolidate it with the other case (see below). That motion is still up in the air.

The second case, now being heard in Massachusetts, alleges trade secret misappropriation and violation of the iRobot confidentiality agreement that Ahed signed when an employee at the firm. This suit was originally filed in Massachusetts state court, but at the request of Robotic FX it was moved to the U.S. District Court.

What’s Judge Gertner going to rule on, exactly? What about efforts to move the case to the Court of Federal Claims?

There are two main issues currently facing Judge Nancy Gertner in the Massachusetts court. One is whether or not to fulfill iRobot’s request for a preliminary injunction that would, among other things, prevent Robotic FX from selling its “Negotiator” robot (which would in turn prevent the firm from carrying out the terms of its $279.9 million military contract). If an injunction is granted, the judge could impose it until the lawsuit is decided, or she could make it good for a set period of time. She could also hasten trial of the lawsuit so the injunction wouldn’t have as big an adverse impact on Robotic FX should the company ultimately prevail. The other issue currently before Judge Gertner is jurisdictional. The U.S. Attorney’s office has argued that the proper venue for this case is the Court of Federal Claims.

On the preliminary injunction front, testimony wrapped up last Wednesday, October 3, and Judge Gertner did not request briefs on the issue. It is likely that she will rule on the injunction request without calling the two sides back into court, our sources say. However, she probably won’t decide this issue until she determines whether her court has jurisdiction to begin with, or whether the case belongs in the Court of Federal Claims. IRobot contends that the Court of Claims was established for people to bring claims for monetary damages. The company says it is seeking protection of its trade secrets. (Meanwhile, to complicate matters further, the U.S. Attorney’s office seems to have conceded in recent filings that the Court of Claims is not the proper venue for trade secret cases, although it also seems to be contending that that court should be the one to address the injunction question.) In any case, the judge has set today (Wednesday, October 10), as the deadline for briefs on the jurisdictional issue. We expect her to rule shortly after that.

What is the difference between the heat knife, welding tool, hot-plate device, welding fixture, and other similar terms used to describe items found in the dumpster?

These terms refer to two different items found in the dumpster. The heat knife (aka welding tool or hot-plate device) is a hand-held tool that looks something like an extremely wide putty knife. It is apparently coated with Teflon and used to weld segments of a robot’s tracks together. IRobot used and probably still uses such a device. An item at least very similar to the one iRobot employed was found in the dumpster. Ahed admits throwing it away, but says it is not something he copied from iRobot. Rather, he says it was something he made independently.

The heat knife is important to iRobot’s case because the company thinks it supports the misappropriation of trade secrets claim. In discussing Ahed’s disposal of the heat knife, Judge Gertner has several times used phrases like “cognizance of guilt.” A key idea here is that people don’t throw things away in the midst of a lawsuit just for fun. The fact Ahed threw it out, coupled to the judge’s comments, could well mean good news for iRobot.

The second item is a welding fixture. This is a device that holds in place sections of track when they are being welded together with the heat knife. It is apparently not a simple brace or vice-like device, but a precision tool.

Ahed says he independently built a welding fixture to use for his robot tracks, but claims the fixture found in the dumpster was not his. He pointed to a small mismatch between the profile of the device and Robotic FX’s tracks as proof. It is this item that Ahed says might have been planted.

At the end of the hearing on October 3 (the last time the parties were in court), Judge Gertner asked both sides to retire to her chambers to try to sort out a resolution “short of World War III.” Is some sort of settlement possible?

Our sources say the possibility of a settlement is remote, but you never know.

Presuming Judge Gertner rules on the preliminary injunction, what factors does she need to consider?

The judge has four main factors to consider when deciding whether or not to issue the preliminary injunction: the likelihood of the success of iRobot’s case on the merits of its main trade secret claim, the balance of hardships to the various parties, whether iRobot will suffer irreparable harm if the preliminary injunction is not issued, and the public interest.

The balance of hardships and the public interest issue are somewhat intertwined in this case. The U.S. Attorney’s office jumped into the fray by filing a statement of interest, saying soldiers and Marines will be further imperiled if there is a delay in delivering Robotic FX’s robots to the Middle East. To counter that, iRobot put PackBot program manager Tom Frost on the stand to testify that the company could deliver its own robots right away, so that there would be no delay in the arrival of robotic technology in the theatre. Frost also testified about the irreparable harm iRobot could suffer from losing this contract, which it claims Robot FX only won by using its stolen designs.

Bob is Xconomy's founder and editor in chief. You can e-mail him at bbuderi@xconomy.com, call him at 617.500.5926. Follow @bbuderi

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  • Neptune

    You meant October, not August, right? Thanks for excellent coverage of this very interesting law suite.

  • http://www.xconomy.com/author/bbuderi/ Robert Buderi

    Yes! Had August on the brain from when the lawsuits were filed. Fixed now–thank you for that and the kind words!.

  • wright

    This is the best article on this story yet. You’ve boiled it down to the key issues and seemed to have navigated through all the “smoke.” Can’t wait for the next chapter. Thanks.

  • http://www.bodyabcs.com Dr. David Klein

    I love watching this story unfold. I-robot has demonstrated killer products, and a huge brain trust.

    I have faith in them to prevail in this lawsuit, and trust in the courts to support their patents.

    dk

  • mb

    This article is extremely informative. Thank you so much!!! I do feel that iRobot will prevail!! The iRobot staff worked for years to get where they are and they don’t need some former employee to make millions on iRobot’s technology.

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