This Major Patent For Sex Toys Expired — Here's What It Means For The Industry

by Emma McGowan
Ashley Batz/Bustle

Teledildonics. It’s not a word most people are familiar with — but you might actually be more knowledgeable than you realize. You know those sex toys that are controlled by apps? Those are examples of teledildonics. The simple definition of teledildonics is sex toys that utilize an internet connection to provide a physical sensation. So, for example, I push up a slider on an app and the vibrator buzzes more intensely. Or my partner and I have sex toys that are connected via the internet and when I do something on my toy, they can feel it on their end. Cool, right?

But why are we talking about high tech sex toys? Well, because on August 17, US Patent No. 6,368,268 expired. The patent — which was originally filed in 1998 — gave the patent holder rights to any teledildonics product. That means that anyone who wanted to make a sex toy that utilized the internet for "remote" control had to pay the patent holder, TZU Technologies, LLC, of Pasadena, California, a licensing fee. And those companies who didn’t? They got sued.

That option — to pay either a fee or to pay after getting sued — contributed to what many people in the sex toy industry say was a stifling of innovation. Some (myself included) even refer to TZU as a “patent troll,” which is a pejorative term for people or companies that buy up patents with the express goal of suing people who violate them. The expiration of the patent, therefore, is being heralded as a potential boon to the industry. Are we finally going to get the sexy teledildonics of our dreams?

Not so fast, says Liz Klinger, co-founder and CEO of the biofeedback vibrator Lioness. Klinger points out that many of these toys stilly rely on Bluetooth technology — and that tech still has a long way to go.

“Right now, a lot of products drop connection if you have certain kinds of phones or if the phone of the person who is using the vibrator is too far away from you,” Klinger tells Bustle. “That won’t stop people from [making toys], but it’ll largely follow the trend of lowly rated products that will mostly disappoint people. It’s hard to do well with the current technology available, and for the most part no one has done so.”

Stephanie Alys, co-founder and CPO of MysteryVibe — one of a handful of companies that chose to pay the licensing fee — also cautions against a teledildonics “free for all.”

“We've learned a lot in the past few years about the risks that teledildonics can pose to privacy and security, and we’ve taken this time at MysteryVibe to be thoughtful and innovate smart solutions that directly address all of the instances in which teledildonics have been executed poorly,” Alys tells Bustle. “We’re interested in exploring new opportunities, but we first and foremost 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.”

MysteryVibe’s first toy, Crescendo, is one of the ones that connect via Bluetooth, as long as the person holding the phone is within 90 feet of the person holding the vibrator. But Bluetooth is only one form of technology that teledildonics utilize. Others connect via wifi or over the 4G network — like OhMiBod.

OhMiBod also chose to pay the licensing fee to TZU. Brian Dunham, who founded the company with his wife Suki, tells Bustle that he comes from an industry that respects patents and wanted to make sure there would be no obstacle to OhMiBod executing their plan for a wifi-connected sex toy.

“Patents are patents,” Dunham tells Bustle. “In some cases you can work around them, in some cases you can’t.”

Dunham believes that intellectual property is intellectual property, period. But what about the argument that TZU wasn’t the creator of that intellectual property, but rather was just a company that bought the rights and then didn’t do anything with them but sue other companies?

“It really doesn’t matter,” Dunham says. “Patents get bought and sold all the time. There are portfolio companies that hold and execute on patents, so that really is irrelevant.”

Andrew, one of the co-founders of now defunct sex tech company Comingle, disagrees. Comingle was one of the companies sued by TZU and, as a result, they didn’t have the resources to continue. Comingle was a particularly innovative company, focusing on open source tech and helping users fully customize their own vibes. It didn’t, however, make it to market.

Courtesy of Comingle

“The idea that patents boost ‘innovation’ is an evil lie, and the reality is entirely the opposite,” Andrew tells Bustle. “They are simply legal means for people with lots of capital to hold back anyone exploring new ideas. It doesn't matter how many patents you have if you are small, the fees associated with obtaining and defending patents will always let giant assholes like TZU win.”

So what should a striving sex tech entrepreneur do? “My advice is that if you want to be a true innovator in the sex tech scene, avoid all the startup business nonsense,” Andrew says. “Make some weird sh*t, publish it openly. Let the idiots fight each other for decades for money, and have some weird fun with your friends and robots in the meantime. F*ck patents. F*ck anyone who defends them.”