Expiration of Major Cybersex Patent Could Set Off Explosive Innovation

Friday marked a major milestone for the more than $15 billion adult toy industry, with the expiration of a longstanding patent on sex toys controlled over the internet. The patent has been held in recent years by a company widely regarded as a ‘patent troll,’ focused not on developing usable technology, but instead on seeking monetary damages from anyone who infringed on their claim to the idea.

Sex industry insiders speaking with Ars Technica described the moment as a watershed, which could unleash a wave of innovation in so-called “sex tech.” The basic idea behind the expiring patent is almost as old as the internet – that two users might sexually stimulate each other using devices controlled over the internet.

Sales of sex toys have been recently measured at about $15 billion per year, but many have projected major growth for the industry thanks to eroding taboos and high-profile cultural landmarks such as the 50 Shades of Grey books and films. Removing obstacles to internet-linked sex-toys — a field often referred to as “teledildonics” — could further spur growth.

“The race will be on to create the most fantastic orgasmic experiences possible over an Internet connection,” Maxine Lynn, an intellectual property lawyer specializing in sex technology, told Ars.

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Other forms of remote sex, from porn to sexting, have certainly thrived in the digital era. But TZU Technologies, the owners of patent #6,368,268 (a “Method and device for interactive virtual control of sexual aids using digital computer networks”) have in recent years filed frequent infringement lawsuits against product developers. That included at least six filings in 2015, among them a suit against a Kickstarter project intended only to enable virtual handholding. Kickstarter was named as a codefendant in that suit, which the plaintiff partly withdrew when Kickstarter moved to fight it in court.

Whatever your feelings about this specific strain of salacious tech, then, the case highlights still-unresolved problems in the way technology patents are awarded, interpreted, and enforced. The 1998 cybersex patent, like those in other instances of patent trolling, is extremely broad, describing general functions (“select input device and stimulation device”) rather than specific mechanisms. There is also compelling evidence it wasn’t even novel at the time it was filed.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation describes the current patent system as so vulnerable to patent trolls that it’s fundamentally “broken.” Similar tactics have been used to file expensive, distracting claims over the basic functionality behind everything from scanning documents to sending email.