Twenty years ago, the US Patent and Trademark Office granted patent number 6,368,268: "Method and device for interactive virtual control of sexual aids using digital computer networks," a minor classic of a majorly fucked-up genre, the bullshit tech patent that simply adds "with a computer" to some absolutely obvious and existing technology or technique.
The late nineties were a bonanza for this kind of patent, with the USPTO asleep at the wheel (though with its foot on the gas, because the USPTO is funded by patent application fees, which gives it a perverse incentive in cases like this). Thousands of these patents were issued and many of them ended up in the hands of patent trolls.
268 was no exception. Though the patent was issued to Warren J. Sandvick, Jim W. Hughes, and David Alan Atkinson, who flipped it to the notorious patent trolls at Tzu Technologies, LLC, who used it to shake down anyone making a "smart" sex-toy.
Tzu's trolling was so egregious, and the patent was such a ridiculous nonsense, that EFF awarded the company and 268 its Stupid Patent of the Month prize for July 2015. As Samantha Cole (previously) recounts in her mini-history of the field for Motherboard, everything in the 268 patent was in the public domain for years before its "inventors" filed their application.
The grifters who wielded 268 have acted as a drag on the smart sex toy industry, and yeah, that may not be the worst possible outcome, given what a catastrophe these things are: badly secured, maximally surveillant, data-leaky, and deceptive (did I mention badly secured? No, worse than that).
Now the weight has been lifted, for better or for worse.
Stephanie Alys, co-founder and Chief Pleasure Officer of MysteryVibe, told me in an email that her company had to pay to license the patent and create the "Crescendo," its first app-controlled toy. The fact that it is now expiring will allow more smaller brands and new start-ups the freedom to experiment and innovate — which is exciting and encouraging," she said. "We have so many exciting things happening in sextech, and considering it's already difficult to find funding for ideas & generally get support from certain institutions, anything that further stifles innovation is a shame. I'm looking forward to the opportunities the expiration of this patent will afford."
Like Machulis, however, Alys' excitement is tempered with some cautiousness about charging ahead. "I think it's important to note that, just because the teledildonics patent will lift, it doesn't mean this should be a free for all without any thought," she said. "Now, as the patent lifts, we're interested in exploring and innovating, but want to make sure we (and others) don't rush into it just because it's possible. It's a time during which we should really experiment, test out functionalities, and be patient until the right sort of innovation is executed, rather than repeating the mistakes that have been made."
The 20-Year Patent on Teledildonics Has Expired [Samantha Cole/Motherboard]