Can There Be Only One Robotic Vacuum On the Market?

Can There Be Only One Robotic Vacuum On the Market?

Anita Gogia is a IPilogue Writer and a 2L JD Candidate at Osgoode Hall Law School.

iRobot Corp was recently issued a decision in its favour against its competitor SharkNinja Operating LLC for patent infringement at the International Trade Commission (“ITC”). The product in question was the innovative Roomba robotic vacuum and floor cleaning device. While the final decision is yet to be given in February 2023, the recent holding recommends an order to ban imports of any infringing SharkNinja devices. Once approved by ITC commissioners in February, this remedy will be enforced regardless of any appeals.

Such a decision is important as it provides credence to the work and intellectual property of iRobot engineers in revolutionizing home cleaning products. The iRobot portfolio consists of other technology innovations and ideas in cleaning, mapping, and navigation.

It was found that SharkNinja was infringing two out of the four patents claimed by iRobot. The court found SharkNinja to infringe on two out of four of iRobot’s relevant patents, specifically for auto docking and navigational control. While SharkNinja also infringed a patent for autonomous floor cleaning, there was no determination of a violation as the Patent Trial and Appeal Board had invalidated that patent. The fourth patent for map-based training was not found to be infringed. SharkNinja based their defence on the invalidity of iRobot’s patents. They argued that the patents were revisions of known technology and that such protection supresses innovation. For example, regarding the mapping patents, SharkNinja says, “Changing cleaning behavior based on location is a basic and abstract idea that predate all vacuums, much less robot vacuums”.

In the past, iRobot has applied their patent protections to prevent Techtronic Industries Co. and Stanley Black & Decker Inc. from selling robotic vacuums. The iRobot advanced technologies have justified the high price for their products but have seen a 29% decrease in U.S. sales largely due to competition from SharkNinja. In selling their vacuums for below half the price of the Roomba, SharkNinja has grown to be the second largest seller in the industry in North America. According to representatives from iRobot, “Shark’s plan has always been to copy iRobot’s innovations, undercut iRobot on price, and steal iRobot’s market share”. Shark’s “plan” may work despite this decision, as the ban may not take place until February 2023, well beyond the holiday season when many household gifts such as robotic vacuum cleaners are purchased.

iRobot has revolutionized the home cleaning devices industry. However, a monopoly is typically considered contrary to public interest. One may argue that it is not reasonable for consumers to have no choice but to purchase an expensive robotic vacuum or not have one when a lower-quality and affordable one exists that offers the technology to navigate cleaning areas, autonomous charging, and map floor layouts. Perhaps if a consumer is willing to sacrifice quality to save money in their household, they should be able to.