Of BristleBots and Folding Toilet Paper: Finding Inspiration and Controversy in Common Bathroom Materials

Invasion of the BristlebotsOver on the Make blog (disclosure: Make is a division of O’Reilly Media, the company that pays me, though not for this blog), Phillip Torrone’s causing quite a stir in the maker and publishing communities by questioning the originality of Klutz/Scholastic’s forthcoming book/kit Invasion of the Bristlebots, a project that features, without attribution, an invention previously described by Evil Mad Scientists Laboratories (using the same name) and posted to YouTube (inspiring numerous video responses) in late 2007:

I’ve been giving this issue a lot of thought since reading this revelation and I’ve even supplied two of the 89 (at the time of this writing) comments generated on the Make blog post:

On the Amazon product page, Klutz even acknowledges the “dedicated tinkerers [who] show off [on YouTube] motorized toothbrush heads that are pretty darned impressive.” Because they add “Researchers at Klutz Laboratories … have sacrificed countless toothbrushes to develop high-performance Bristlebots with more zip, wilder action, and a control that lets you adjust a Bot’s behavior,” it looks like they think the Bristlebot is such a well-known invention (a dubious, transparently disingenuous assumption) that they don’t need permission to improve upon it. Perhaps they even think it was an invention (meme?) that just sprang to life, without a real inventor to attribute (Windell and Lenore just being the ones who happened to make the best YouTube video)?

[My second comment addresses another reader’s response to my previous comment]

Perhaps I was unclear, but I actually wasn’t suggesting it was an honest mistake. Based on Klutz’s YouTube video response and their own marketing description, they seem to know they owe the idea to a particular external source. Given that they only had the single inventors’ video to respond to (as far as I can tell, every other “bristlebot” video I’ve seen on YouTube points back to the original EMS clip) suggests that they knew this wasn’t some meme without a known creator to credit.

Even if the idea isn’t new, it seems pretty clear where Klutz picked up on it, so attribution (at the very least) seems appropriate.

Since I posted those comments, it became clear that I gave Klutz too much credit by even suggesting that their claim was based on not needing permission for a common invention. As it turns out, an official statement reveals that they’re actually “genuinely surprised by this reaction,” claiming that “the development of ‘Invasion of the Bristlebots’ by the Klutz creative team dates back to at least early 2007 and was developed internally like other Klutz products.” If I thought their previous claim was disingenuous, this one smells even worse. How can they draw attention to the number of YouTube videos featuring bristlebots, while at the same time trying to make us believe that they were developing this project independently, in secret, before the Evil Mad Scientists uploaded their first video and throughout the time the invention was becoming a video craze?

This whole question of owning an idea and when/how it’s appropriate for another party to profit from it brings to mind my own experience with an idea for a book I started noodling in late 2007. While working on Napkin Origami (a concept which itself owes a debt of inspiration to the success of Alison Jenkins’ The Lost Art of Towel Origami), I started to think about other publishing opportunities in the niche of origami using everyday, nontraditional materials.* This path led me to a fun web site that served as a book proposal for Toilegami: The Practical Bathroom Book. Whether the authors were serious about the proposal or just having a laugh, I was intrigued and wanted to sign the project immediately.

The trouble was, the site’s Contact Us page was dead (it still is) and the creators were impossible to track down. Google returned a few possible email addresses, though most were for the wrong people and rest were too old to be useful (I sent messages to all the addresses I could find). Eventually, I needed to admit defeat and move on. I wouldn’t be able to use these authors or their work for a book, but the germ of the idea remained. Though Toilegami and the specific text and designs associated with it were off limits, there was no reason I couldn’t do a book titled Toilet Paper Origami, with different authors and different creations (in which case, I’d likely still credit my inspiration).

Toilet Paper OrigamiUnfortunately, my pursuit of this particular title ended almost exactly one year ago, along with my employment at the publisher I was working for at the time (which coincided with the de facto end of that company). Imagine my surprise and frustration when I saw Toilet Paper Origami released in September by a different publisher. Of course, I was frustrated because someone else got to the book I wanted to do, not because I’d felt I’d been robbed (how could I have been, since I’d never announced any plans for a book like this?), This is simply an example of a good idea whose time was right, and another publisher seized on it while I was unable to.

Getting back to the issue that kicked off this post, the example of Toilet Paper Origami is different from Invasion of the Bristlebots because it capitalizes on a general idea, with a different implementation and a different name. If the publisher had used the name Toilegami, however, I’d be doing a little more than just raising my eyebrows and would likely express as much concern on behalf of the creators of that term as Phil has been for the Evil Mad Scientists (who coined the name “bristlebots”).

When I worked as a trade/craft editor, I participated in many pitch meetings that revolved around questions like, “How can we do something like [successful book]“? That’s just the way publishing (like most industries, I’d imagine) works. I’m reminded of the chapter title in Blake Snyder’s excellent guide to screen writing, Save the Cat!: “Give me the same thing… only different!” But the second half of that equation, only different!, is as important to remember as the first.

Sharing a common inspiration is not the same thing as capitalizing on the particularity of an idea that another creator has taken the time and thought to cultivate. Appropriating someone else’s developed market for an idea (as Klutz appears to have done by linking to Evil Mad Scientists’ “How to Make a BristleBot” video, which has had over two million views so far and spawned many inspired hobbyists to follow) is unfair to the original makers whose great idea is worth spreading in a way that acknowledges their work.

UPDATE: Pat Murphy, editor at Klutz, weighs in with a thoughtful response, which I’m still trying to digest. Everything in that post sounds right and true, but it doesn’t really mesh with the message that preceded it. I really want to believe it, but could editorial at Klutz really be so insulated (obviously, their marketing department is not) to keep them from seeing the community surrounding the invention on which they’re publishing? I know I’m jaded, and perhaps I’ve been too close to seeing how these sorts of decisions are made in trade/craft publishing, but I’m still left with a bad taste in my mouth.