iPad keyboard maker Brydge is suing the apparent creator of a very similar-looking competitor called Libra. Not only that, but Brydge is suing Kickstarter, too, for hosting a crowdfunding campaign in support of the Libra keyboard.
The lawsuit, filed Tuesday in a federal court in New York, accuses the company it believes is Libra’s creator, OGadget, of violating a patent owned by Brydge. That patent covers the key features that make a Brydge keyboard work: primarily, a U-shaped hinge that’s able to rotate the keyboard open and closed like a laptop when it’s attached to something like an iPad.
“To see something as brazen as this launch on Kickstarter … honestly, it’s a bit of a kick in the face to our staff tirelessly building the reputation we’ve built,” Nick Smith, CEO and co-founder of Brydge, tells The Verge.
Brydge wants the court to block all sales of the Libra keyboard, which would include removing the crowdfunding campaign from Kickstarter. It’s seeking punitive damages for the alleged patent violation, too.
While there’s a wide array of keyboard attachments for iPads, Brydge’s products have always been distinct. They mimic the style of Apple’s laptops, making the iPad look a lot like a MacBook Pro when one is attached. My colleague Sam Byford recently called one of Brydge’s keyboards the “best option” for getting a laptop-like experience out of the iPad Pro.
The Libra keyboard looks very similar to a Brydge keyboard, and it attaches to the iPad in a similar way, using a U-shaped clamp. Smith says Brydge’s patent, which revolves around the clamp mechanic, is the reason many other keyboard makers use folio designs or magnet arrays to attach to tablets. “There’s no doubt what we have is very unique,” he says, “and that’s why no one else does it.”
In its lawsuit, Brydge includes a series of photos showing side-by-side similarities between the two devices, from their hinges to their overall design. While Smith says Brydge also has design patents protecting its keyboards, this lawsuit only focuses on the functional elements that make the keyboard attachments work, with a heavy focus on the hinge.
The Libra keyboard does have one major difference, though: it has a built-in trackpad, whereas Brydge doesn’t include a trackpad on any of its iPad products. To make the two devices look more alike, the lawsuit includes photos of an unreleased prototype Brydge keyboard with a trackpad on it.
Smith says Brydge is weeks away from beginning to manufacture its own iPad keyboard with a built-in trackpad. Brydge hopes to start sales in January or February, though production will be limited to no more than 4,000 units at first. Smith says the initial launch will be branded as a “beta,” in large part because he wants to make sure customers understand that the trackpad’s features are limited because only basic mouse features are available in iPadOS.
“We don’t want to be putting ourselves out there as great, but the iPad experience isn’t amazing,” Smith says of the mouse features that were added to iPadOS last month. The “beta” launch will let interested customers use the product “knowing iPadOS will improve.”
Brydge says it sent a cease-and-desist letter to OGadget in mid-September and that OGadget stopped selling Libra on its website shortly thereafter. An image of the Libra keyboard is still up on OGadget’s site, but the link to learn more about the product leads to an error page that says the website is “no longer available.”
Weirdly enough, Brydge doesn’t actually know for sure that OGadget makes the Libra keyboard. OGadget appears to be the company behind the product, but a spokesperson says Brydge is “not certain” about it. That’s because the Kickstarter campaign for Libra, as well as a press release about it, are both marketed under the brand Sentis. Outside of those two places, Sentis doesn’t appear to have any online presence — even its advertised website doesn’t exist.
There are several ties between the two brands, though. Sentis links to a YouTube page for “O Gadget” in its press release, and it links to a Facebook Messenger page for OGadget on its Kickstarter campaign. OGadget also links to the Libra Kickstarter on its Twitter and Facebook accounts. But OGadget doesn’t state that it owns the brand.
The Verge reached out to OGadget by email and did not hear back. We reached out to Sentis by email and on Kickstarter and did not hear back.
That confusion is one of the big reasons why the lawsuit’s real target is Kickstarter, which is where Libra has been getting much of its exposure. The campaign, which launched September 24th, currently has more than 1,700 backers and has raised more than $220,000.
“Kickstarter is really dear to our heart … but we obviously had to include Kickstarter in the claim to ensure that it gets taken down,” Smith says.
Brydge got its start on Kickstarter, with a 2012 campaign that raised nearly $800,000 from more than 3,000 backers. The company has launched dozens of products since, including keyboard attachments designed to fit most iPads, but none have appeared on Kickstarter since the first campaign.
Kickstarter will remove projects over patent violations, according to a copyright help page that a spokesperson sent to The Verge. The company relies on court findings of infringement, though, and Brydge may not have that until long after the Libra campaign wraps up. Suing Kickstarter directly seems to be meant to make a takedown happen faster. Kickstarter’s spokesperson declined to comment on the lawsuit.
Brydge isn’t the first company to go after Kickstarter over projects it’s hosting. 3D Systems sued Kickstarter in 2012 when it claimed a crowdfunded 3D printer was violating one of its patents. And in 2015, a patent troll sued Kickstarter for hosting a campaign for a cybersex product it claimed was infringing on a patent. Neither case worked out for the plaintiffs: both 3D Systems and the patent troll dropped their cases.
Smith says Brydge is also targeting Kickstarter because it’s an American company, unlike OGadget, which appears to be based in China.
“At the end of the day, what is Libra? Libra is not a little company,” Smith says. “Libra’s basically a factory in Shenzhen that’s copied our product and is using Kickstarter to sell it. It’s as simple as that.”