Barnes & Noble's Nook: Beautiful but Plagiarized?

A competing firm cries foul over the Nook's color touchscreen. Did Barnes & Noble steal their idea?

Alex and Nook

The two e-readers above share one glaring similarity: The color touchscreen on the bottom, which allows you to navigate the books and content that you pull up, on the big black-and-white screen above.

And yet one--the Barnes & Noble Nook--has been widely hyped, while the other, the Alex Dual Screen eBook Reader, got lost in the shuffle. As we first suggested, the uncanny similarities hinted that the two companies were on a collision course.

The crash has arrived: Spring Design, the company behind Alex, has filed suit against Barnes & Noble, claiming that they breached a non-disclosure agreement (NDA). And they've added an interesting wrinkle: They claim to have met with Barnes & Noble throughout 2009. In hopes of drumming up work with the company, they showed them early versions of the Alex. B&N executives supposedly praised its advanced features. Barnes & Noble is declining comment.

But the case still isn't as clear cut as Spring would like it to be, at least judging from what we know so far. The Nook, designed by Ammunition, could very well have been in the works all along. Even if B&N met with Spring, they might simply have been playing their cards close--especially since the color touchscreen isn't exactly a super-original idea. (It also seems relevant that Ammunition has had a very long string of design hits; Spring seems to have sprung from relative obscurity, in 2006.)

There's also one telling difference between the two: Both have Internet access, but the Nook's touchscreen doesn't serve as a Web browser. The Alex's does.

Spring, meanwhile, has claimed that they filed patents on their idea as early as 2006. Were they written broadly enough to include something like the Nook's touchscreen, which is geared specifically towards sampling and sharing books?

Can Spring's NDA agreement really serve as a bulletproof document, and allow them to sue B&N? After all, we're still talking about a agreement not to share news about features--not a patent infringement. And the Nook was revealed two days after Alex. Sounds like fortuitous planning, on B&N's part.

But the complexities don't end there! One of the big open secrets in consumer-electronics design is that industry experts tend to have a pretty good idea of what everyone else is working on. Partly, that's due to loose lips; the design community is a small one. But more importantly, that's due to the simple fact that all of these devices are made in the same few places in Taiwan and China. Designs tend to leak. Rarely does any one company really get the jump on another. A suit like this will probably come down to a paper trail--and only rarely does that trail prove theft.

[PC Mag via OhGizmo!]

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3 Comments

  • SERGI BOSCH

    i hope this isn't true. alas, i'm worried it is. from what i've seen at a personal level, barnes and noble still doesn't use online calendar to schedule its employees. can you imagine? employees have to show up to the actual retail store to view their schedule. Yikes!! my point- how can a company that is so online-inept actually create a genius technology tool? smells fishy....

  • Greg Steggerda

    Another interesting example of how technology is blurring the line between patentable widgets and intellectual property. Which standard is applied will be a key part of this case.