Two international lock companies are at loggerheads over the shape, design, materials and manufacturing methods used in competing bicycle lock ranges. Knog has been selling its "moulded silicone" 'sausage locks' for two years; ABUS introduced its "elastomer-coated" uGrip locks at Eurobike earlier in the summer. Knog claims ABUS has copied the look, manufacturing process and colours of its earlier design. ABUS denies this, claiming design differences and stating that Knog's patent protection is not in place because a Japanese company patented a similar design some years previously.
ABUS of Germany has been making locks since 1924. Knog of Australia was founded in 2002.
A meeting between executives of the two companies was held on the ABUS booth at the Eurobike trade show, held in Friedrichsahefen, Germany, at the end of August, but no agreement was reached so Knog and ABUS may now slug it out in the courts. The CEO of Knog said he was "furious" at discovering the similarities between the two lock ranges; the head of the security division at ABUS said there was "no reason" for any "consumer confusion." And the in-house corporate counsel for ABUS and the company's retained patent attorney have both told BikeBiz that Knog's claims do not stand up to close scrutiny.
Hugo Davidson, CEO of Knog, said:
'We entered into the lock category two years ago with our range of silicone sausage locks. We spent a lot of money registering the design and patenting the product. I understood, throughout the development, that a single silicone over moulding would be seen by the market as a massive improvement from the mundane cable locks that were being produced by everyone else."
Knog and ABUS both had booths at this year's Eurobike trade show. Davidson said the close similarities between Knog's two year old sausage locks and the new uGrip locks on display on the ABUS booth would lead to market confusion:
"Numerous industry players told us that ABUS was selling locks that appeared to be very similar to ours. People emailed me having seen the ABUS locks at the show and asked if Knog was making locks for ABUS, or if we had licensed our technology to ABUS. Some of our distribution partners expressed concerns, suggesting that consumers might confuse their locks for ours."
Davidson said he was "furious" about this potential market confusion.
"I approached ABUS at the show and asked to meet with the CEO of the security division. He agreed to meet with me but did so with their lawyer."
Davidson met with Michael Büenfeld, Head of Mobile Security Division at ABUS. Büenfeld told BikeBiz the new ABUS uGrip range was not a copy of the Knog range:
"We have produced locks with an elastomer coating for a longer time [than Knog] and are broadening our offer to the markets with the new range for 2013. We are always thinking in product assortments. If we take the full range of elastomer-coated products ABUS is producing, and do not forget the quality level of our products, we guess there is no reason for an end consumer to be confused."
Knog products are much copied, said Davidson: the company's silcone-covered Frog LED lights have "inspired" many Asian companies to produce similar products. Davidson said Knog protects its designs vigorously and has managed to stop dozens of copycatters from China but he expressed surprise that a large and long-standing German company would produce a lock range with "so many visual similarities" to the Knog range.
"Copying is rife in the bike industry," said Davidson. "I assumed that at some stage a small Chinese factory might copy our lock technology but I didn't think that ABUS, a large international player which prides itself as being a reputable, innovative corporate, would produce a lock with so many visual similarities.
"The major innovation that we bring to this product is the over moulding of a single silicone skin. We have filed patent application and design registrations for these products and are in the process of accelerating the final examination of this IP so that we can attempt to stop ABUS selling these locks in our major markets."
Büenfeld said ABUS had yet to receive formal notification of any patent infringement from Knog.
BikeBiz has been in touch with legal representatives for ABUS. Manuel Thomas, corporate counsel for ABUS (in effect, the company's in-house lawyer), told BikeBiz:
"When Hugo Davidson approached us at Eurobike, he claimed to have patent protection and registered design protection for a large number of different design variations. Although we had done our homework in this regard, we were not aware of such different design registrations. We only knew Knog's international patent application, which apparently had received a devastating official search result rather than being a granted patent, and a single European design registration. Mr. Davidson promised to let us have a list of the alleged further design registrations, but he never did. We wrote to him the very next day, but we never received an answer. We then considered the matter closed."
Thomas added: "Hugo Davidson has still not provided any substantial facts to prove his accusations against ABUS. The accusations made by Knog are without foundation."
This is a claim backed up by Oliver Fries, a patent attorney with German law firm Manitz, Finsterwald & Partner GbR, representing ABUS. He told BikeBiz:
"Our patent search on Knog revealed the international patent application only, not a granted patent. Knog apparently decided not to pursue the international patent application."
Fries added "Possibly Knog has decided not to carry on the international patent application in view of the relevant prior art cited by the International Search Authority. Most importantly, the search report cites a Japanese patent application published in 2008. The flexible cable lock [in this patent] has a full-length cover made, for example, from a soft resin material. While we do not know whether Knog was "inspired" by this earlier Japanese publication, it has been our conclusion that it is very unlikely that Knog would obtain a granted patent over this relevant prior art."
Davidson from Knog disagreed with this assessment: "We obtained a full translation of this 2008 Japanese patent that was identified as prior art and have had advice that this should not effect our patent application."
What's not in dispute is Knog's European design registration for its sausage locks. However, Fries said this wasn't anywhere as tough as patent protection:
"Unlike a patent, a design is registered in Europe without a substantial examination to the merits," said Fries.
"This means that a registered European design is a formal registered right, the validity and scope of protection of the registered design being determined in nullity and infringement proceedings only."
Fries said the Knog sausage locks and the ABUS uGrip locks differ in key design details.
"Knog's registered design shows a substantially quadrangular front face and cross section of the lock body, whereas the lock body of the ABUS cable lock has a substantially triangular shape," said Fries.
"The ABUS lock also has a set of four grooves delimiting the lock body from the cable part and another set of four circular grooves at the cable tip, which are not part of the Knog registered design."
Fries added that Knog's colour claim would not stand up to scrutiny:
"[ABUS] has offered cable locks in a wide range of different colours for many years."