Robotic FX Fires Back—Says iRobot’s “Secrets” Aren’t Secret

10/30/07Follow @bbuderi

First, a warning. If you are looking for closure—an answer to the question of whether iRobot will get its requested preliminary injunction against Robotic FX—you’re out of luck. Although witness testimony ended on October 3, and ostensibly the filing period for further arguments was over the following week (or so), Judge Nancy Gertner of U.S. District Court in Boston has not yet ruled on the injunction question. So, read on at your peril.

What has happened today is that another filing has been entered into the court record, extending the now long-drawn-out battle over the injunction. This time the filing comes from Robotic FX, and (get ready) it’s a letter to the court in response to a letter to the court from iRobot back on October 10, which was written in response to a request from the court back on October 3 (the day testimony closed). The letter largely covers old ground, but it held a nugget of new information, for us, at least—Robotic FX’s argument that some of the material iRobot is claiming as confidential information or a trade secret is publicly disclosed in iRobot’s own patents.

If you’ve read this far, you know the basic story: iRobot is suing Robotic FX, alleging, essentially, that Robotic FX’s Negotiator robot is a knock-off of its PackBot (full backgrounder here). While waiting for its lawsuits to play out, iRobot wants a preliminary injunction against Robotic FX to stop it from producing the Negotiator.

The gist of today’s letter, to Gertner from Robotic FX attorney Patricia Kane Schmidt, of Bell, Boyd & Lloyd in Chicago, is that the injunction iRobot seeks is far too broad. Basically, Schmidt argues that if an injunction were to be granted, it should only apply to aspects of the Negotiator that are based on “iRobot’s protectable trade secrets and confidential information.” IRobot, she argues, essentially wants to enjoin “the entire Negotiator product.” What’s more, says Schmidt, “iRobot has failed to identify any protectable trade secrets or confidential information.”

That last argument is not new. IRobot has previously responded that it has laid out clear evidence of misappropriation of trade secrets—and that in any case, at the preliminary injunction stage it is only “required to present enough facts to show a likelihood of success” on the merits of its claims.

In short, the basic point has already been made and countered—several times. What’s new to us is Robotic FX’s discussion of specific features of the PackBot that iRobot alleges were copied in the Negotiator. These include the chassis design, the track, and a group of five other features found in one prototype version of the PackBot.

Schmidt’s letter argues that none of these features involves trade secrets or confidential information. She contends that the elastomer material used in the PackBot’s tracks and the method of manufacturing it are publicly known. She says that three of the five prototype PackBot features in question “are merely applications of common engineering knowledge.” The other two, as well as the chassis design, are not trade secrets but “publicly disclosed in iRobot’s patents,” according to the letter.

We were a bit confused about that last argument, which at first blush seemed to be saying, “this might be patent infringement, but it’s not misappropriation of confidential information or trade secrets.” However, we were able to get through to Schmidt, who made it clear that Robotic FX is not admitting any kind of patent infringement. Rather, she explained that if information is disclosed within a patent filing—but isn’t itself the subject of the patent—then that information becomes publicly available and cannot be claimed as a trade secret or confidential information. She says that in the letter she was “merely illustrating for the court that iRobot disclosed certain of its alleged trade secrets in issued patents.”

Schmidt’s letter concludes by arguing that “iRobot’s proposed preliminary injunction is improper,” and that it should be denied. You can read her entire letter here.

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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  • Anon

    It’s my understanding that the chassis, track and wheel designs, specifically the special materials used, are one of iRobot’s most protected group of secrets. Although some details might be disclosed in patent filings, I’m sure those details are protected under earlier patents. I’ve heard and a substantial amount of the R&D money and time was spent developing the track design, again, specifically the special materials used to create it. Regardless, Robotic FX has no possible way of fulfilling the order, at least without being bought by a much larger company. Even iRobot would be pushed to its limits to fulfill this kind of a contract. I’m not too worried about the contract now. I think that will all work itself out. But I hope iRobot is still able to protect it’s IP. In the best case, put Robotic FX out of business and maybe take a good chunk out of whatever defense contractor is funding them.

  • Another Anon

    If you follow the money, you will see multiple millions of dollars were given to iRobot for R&D. MIT graduates and retired Admirals, go figure! If most of R&D was sponsored by federal grant money, shouldn’t the taxpayers own the IP? iRobot unfairly bowls over a lot of companies to get their contracts.

    I’m sure Robotic FX can find willing machining and assembly subcontractors to get the job done.

  • Original Anon

    You submit a valid idea. Various government agencies, both the US and allies funded R&D. I’m not sure how that all works out. Regardless, iRobot owns the patents and the IP for a handful of various aspects of Packbot and the EOD system.

    Obviously, ‘Another Anon’ has never tried to roll out 1000 extremely sophisticated robotics systems for a client as important as the military (of course, neither have I, but iRobot has, and it’s hard to do). When lives depend on something working correctly, you can’t have a 99% success rate with fab and assembly. That’s hard to find among fab and assembly contractors. Then you’d likely have to contract out testing, and testing to mil spec isn’t easy to do. Sure, lots of contractors will be willing to take the money, but keeping track of them and keeping them honest is a hard task.

  • Another Anon

    I can’t imagine iRobot has a field success rate of 99%, especially when RF communication is concerned. Robots fail in the field all the time, due to their complexity. Government programs have milestones and QA inspections to keep new suppliers in line. Our shops are MIL SPEC and ISO, so I would be happy to help Robotic FX.

    Pay attention to the money they get to further develop the Warrior and ask “Why”.

  • http://www.linkedin.com/in/andrewkoyfman Andrew Koyfman

    Another Anon, there are usually a variety of conditions to government grants. The information I have is from a very cursory look into this topic a while ago.

    From what I remember when taking govenment funding does not preclude you from geting IP protection. However, some govenment funds / contracts can come with restrictions on how much the company can charge in patent licensing fees. As long as iRobot is within the guidelines for the grants, there are OK.

  • Anon

    I wasn’t speaking of field success rate, but rather delivery success rate. The client is going to test everything before they put any weight behind it, every robot I’m sure. I’m talking about contractors delivering a solid product every time; 100%. Sure, iRobot supplies backup parts and fix kits for Packbots, because things breaks. But if a supplier get parts mixed up, or a board fab isn’t quite right, that’s a huge issue. But a company can work all of that out. The real concern I would have is the logistics of it all. It would be a nightmare.

  • Laurel

    To Another Anon – why are you so anti-iRobot? Whether iRobot got funding from VCs or the government is irrelevant to this case. We protect IP to foster innovation. When France declared there was no such thing as copyright, the only works published in their country were pornographic. Once they later established copyright laws, the authors came back and the rest is literary history.

    If RoboticFX stole IP from iRobot – then the injunction has to be granted to protect innovators everywhere in this country. If RoboticFX did not steal IP, Jameel Ahed would have developed his Negotiator in what they call a “white room” with artifacts proving and documenting that he was starting from scratch using his own ideas… especially given his history with iRobot’s Packbot. Instead, he is shown destroying supposed evidence and claims he’s not sure why he wiped his laptop clean and hid it under a bed. To quote a famous justice – I know it when I see it.

  • Another Anon

    There is no real “new” technology in military robots being purchased. You have radios, fiber optic multiplexers, tracks, motors , manipulator arms, chassis, cameras and control circuits. All of the components have been around for decades. The money allows a company to engineer and produce low quantity variations of robots based on feedback from the military and police bomb squads. What IP is to be protected there? Show me a piece of their technology that is truly new!

    If there was Autonomy in either robot, then I would agree to your IP rant, because that software and sensor technology is new.

    NO , iRobot is just another Goliath that squishes Davids who spend their own R&D money just to get rejected by the political machine. The military is known to ignore smaller non-standard companies and instead stay with the NGC’s Boeings, GD’s, Qinetic’s and iRobots of the world. Fostering innovation?? Please! iRobot stops fresh ideas or cheaper manufacturing processes (innovation in itself) from getting anywhere.

  • Anon

    The new technology question is a tough one. True, manipulator arms have been around. But the arm on the packbot EOD isn’t off the shelf by any means. Building a manipulator arm for packbot that is extremely lightweight and still strong is a new product, but true, not a new concept. Building a computer to drive a robot isn’t new, but packbot’s computer was definitely created from scratch. Tracks aren’t anything new, but packbots track system is heavily protected and consists of a special material to meet all of the requirements of the packbot including wear, durability and maneuverability. Making a robot water tight isn’t new, but how packbot does it is a new idea.

    It’s like saying writing a book isn’t new, so your new book on ‘robots for dummies’ doesn’t have any IP to protect.

  • Anon

    @Another Anon

    Maybe I’m missing something. Are you suggesting that Packbot is created with basically ‘off the shelf’ components all slapped together? Then you have to determine what level you stop at. Packbot has custom PCBs in it. Of course, those are just made from off the shelf components (caps, resistors, ICs, etc). So maybe iRobot should have made some of their own ICs for their boards. But then, all ICs are still just made from gates and transistors. So, should all electronics then simple be ‘owned’ by the guys that have the IP on transistors? Hmm… ineresting.

    Maybe books’ copyrights should be owned by the guy who invented modern publishing. But then, words and letters were around before that. So, maybe the guy that invented letters? or writing methods? But those are really just language in another form, right? So who owns language? But, language is just spoken or written thoughts, right? So, who owns the idea of a thought? Well, we appear to be in a quandary there.

  • Yet Another Anon

    Interesting Anon.
    As a former employee of iRobot myself, I was involved in the R&D of the PackBot a few years back. I guess I am just affirming the statements of Anon that the arm assembly and the PC boards throughout are all original designs.

  • Another Anon

    I appreciate all the feedback. I obviously didn’t do a good job of explaining what I meant. I’m not referring to basic building blocks. Just taking seven fully developed circuit cards and combining them to fit onto a newly shaped smaller circuit card to fit inside a specially shaped box is not new technology. It’s an engineering adaptation. Friction joints on motors and gears are not new. Encoders on manipulator arms are not new. I bet DuPont or some other chemical company developed the new polymer for the tracks, and the articulating track idea was on Remotec’s robots for decades.

    The question really boils down to: are iRobot’s designs so incredibly genius and unique that they can’t possibly be considered common engineering techniques? It may be unique in design, but it is hardly an advancement in technology worthy of patents.

    If I recall correctly, Robotic FX didn’t steal any patented technology, but rather manufactured something that looks similar to PacBot and uses designs that were described in a patent filing, but not the topic of the patent itself. So what is the protected IP in this case? How long should it be protected for before becoming commonplace.

    Thank you all for your comments.

  • Anon

    @Another Anon, others

    I see your points. I assure you there were drastically new technologies in the track design as well as the internal PCBs, power distribution, payload connections, etc., etc., etc. True, other companies or contractors may have fully developed these ideas, or at very least assisted iRobot. That’s not the point though. If iRobot hires out design work and says anything you develop we own also, then that’s the way it is. Look at the patents. They usually list several people, those from iRobot, and whoever else helped them do it. As others here have suggested in the past, there’s more going on than is being publicly released, or at least that being mentioned in the public. Hopefully, it’ll come up in future court action. At the very least, you can see why it looks so bad for robotic FX to ‘possibly’ have lots of design documents for the packbot, both mechanical and electrical. He apparently had some tracks and wheels, and the a hotplate. Hmm… As for your last question, I can assure that every little aspect of packbot is protected IP. Now, what parts of this case that applies to, I don’t know. However, iRobot has suggest many time that it doens’t need to show that right now, just show that there’s something going on a little fishy. Your last paragraph states that RFX didn’t steal anything. I think you should reconsider that. That’s what these cases are all about, and that statement hasn’t been proven yet. Those that are in the know are fully confident of the opposite being true.

  • Anon

    I believe the information was stolen, period. How else do you explain midnight trash runs to the dumpster when there was a court order not allowing shredding or destruction of papers. I think that anyone who feels that there was not illegal activity going on here should go to jail, including the lawyers for being in collusion.