Co.Design

MagSafe For Headphones Is Here (And Patents Have Already Killed It)

The Pogo is a clever new adapter that makes clotheslining yourself on your headphones a thing of the past, but patent issues have made it impossible to bring to market.

How many times have you plugged your earbuds into your phone and then accidentally caught the cord on a door handle, or the edge of a table, only to either rip the headphone cord in two or send your smartphone skittering across the floor? For that matter, how many times have your headphones clotheslined you?

Probably a lot. It's a common occurrence, one that is the main selling point of wireless headphones. But wireless headphones will never sound as good as the alternatives that string their sound through a cord, and they require charging and batteries. Where is the better, safer headphone cord we all deserve?

Technically, it's already here in a magnetically connecting cord called the Pogo. And you're probably never going to see it on the market, because the major headphone makers are all petrified they'll be sued into a thin, translucent smear of grease if they ever dare to make it a reality, but not by who you'd think.

Back in 2006, Apple released the Magsafe, a power connector that is tipped with a small, powerful magnet. If you trip on a MacBook power cable, the magnet immediately disconnects, preventing your clumsiness from catapulting your expensive laptop across the room. It's a genius idea. Apple has MagSafe well-patented when it comes to laptops, prohibiting any other computer maker from using magnets to connect a cable to a charging port. But what about other cords? Couldn't this same idea be applied to other types of cables without getting in trouble with Apple?

That was the thought process of designer Jon Patterson, who became interested in (and frustrated by) the problem of headphone cords when he purchased himself a used OP-1 Synthesizer. Patterson loved the synth, but the headphone jack on the side was so fragile that he worried he would break it off entirely. He started looking for a better solution.

"I had just left my job designing at Nooka and I had a few months off, so I started researching the history of headphone connectors," Patterson tells me. "It turns out that there hasn't been much innovation in headphone jacks since the 1960s, largely due to the cost of repurposing existing manufacturing facilities." Modifying how headphone jacks worked even slightly would be disruptive to the point of impracticality.

Instead of coming up with an alternative to the traditional headphone jack, Patterson started cobbling together the prototype of what would become the Pogo. The main benefit of the Pogo is it's an adapter, not a connector replacement. That means you can plug it into any pair of headphones, and if you trip or catch the cord on the corner of something, the Pogo's magnetic seal will be broken instead of your headphones.

It's obviously a good idea. As Patterson was quick to realize, this magnetic adapter system could be used to make any cable or cord safer. Not only that, but they are cheap to make: a single Pogo adapter only costs $3 to produce. So why can't you buy a Pogo adapter now? In short, lawyers, man.

"I originally intended to Kickstart the Pogo, but I started receiving feedback that there were patents out there that were problematic," says Patterson. "I didn't want to lose my hair when the lawsuits came in, so I began to contact like-minded companies to try to make the Pogo a reality."

But no one would touch the Pogo. Urban Ears loved the concept, but didn't have the legal resources to research the thorny patent issues involved. They recommended that Patterson approach a bigger company with a legal team large enough to put in the proper due diligence. So Patterson went to Belkin. They took the idea seriously, but once their legal team had put in the appropriate due diligence, they rejected the proposal entirely.

Surprisingly, Apple's MagSafe patent was not the problem. The cadre of lawyers specifically called out U.S. patent 7,354,315, 7,901,216 and 7,500,882 as problematic. Despite the fact that no one is commercially making headphones or headphone adapters like the Pogo, Belkin's legal team concluded that the product was too likely to get them sued to go forward with.

Patterson is still hopeful that some company out there will decide to take a chance on Pogo. Despite the fact that Apple has patented its MagSafe technology up the wazoo, he points out that Microsoft was still capable of shipping its recent Surface tablet with a magnetic connector. These sorts of intractable legal issues can be resolved if there's enough of a will to do it. But right now, the future of Pogo looks bleak.

"I've always been told, 'If you can think it, you can make it.' But nobody ever talked about patent trolls," says Patton. "Today, patents seem to repress designers from innovating, instead of protecting their innovations. Who knows how many other designs that could innovate the market are being crushed for fear of being sued?"

The Pogo innovates a technology that hasn't substantially changed for 50 years, but because of the fear of being sued, it will probably never be made. Meanwhile, millions of us will go around every day tripping over cords and clotheslining ourselves on cables. Good design, apparently, can fix the common cable, but it can't fix the patent system.

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23 Comments

  • Archie Gillis

    Sounds like this guy should have done his homework before re-inventing the wheel. The patent system seems to be working fine in this situation. If Belkin wants it they should licence it from the real creator. Innovation crisis solved!

  • Akira Yirokostopuro

    Just came across a nice Freudian slip on Replug's home page, which might be a clue:

    "When too much force is appled, Replug simply detaches from itself"

  • Philipp von Frankenberg

    Sorry, but Patterson's design is a one to one copy of the magnetic connection designed by apple. see part of their design collection here:

    https://patentimages.storage.g...

    However, magnetic electric connections have been around for decades in China for example on their kettles, it's nothing new. Apple just took the idea and patented it in a range of versions. Unfortunately this version is among them. So Apple is a sort of patent troll. But even that, again, is nothing new, as it's a publicly traded company and hence they try to rake in as much money as possible for their shareholders. Patterson is just (a player) late to the (patent) game. I can see that replug might have even thought about designing their plug with the same circular magnet but because apple already applied for their patent a year before they couldn't and hence came up with a workaround of the "mechanical" breakaway.

  • Joe Blubaugh

    I'm bothered by this coverage - Replug filed a patent in 2008 and is manufacturing a product based on those patents. Just because this guy came up with a similar idea does not automatically entitle him to produce them. This is actually the patent system working as intended: the original inventor is prevented from being muscled out of the market by a huge manufacturer like Belkin.

  • mjankowski_XXX

    I was thinking about the very same idea too.
    Why don't you simply manufacture it in China, establish a company in another country where patents are not as abusive and ship it from there? Problem solved.

  • Mark Coulthard

    Replug clearly don't have the funding to alter their manufacturing processes for a product that is essentially the same idea as what they have already but looks better and is a little smaller...If the idea was radically different and hit a different market they would probably invest, but the fact is this isn't a radically new idea...

  • cassette_walkman

    I second some of the comments below. Replug are clearly not Patent Trolls. This article is hyping-up a simple situation of a product design possibly/probably infringing on real existing products' patents. (A combination of Replug and Apple patents).

    Has Patterson tried selling the idea to, or co-creating the product with, Replug? They were clearly first with the breakaway headphone plug, not Patterson. THEY innovated the 50 year old technology.
    Or co-create with Apple? They also innovated an old and existing technology.

    Hack journalism.

  • Anthony

    Of course, if anyone bothered to actually research the Patents mentioned here you would find that the owner's of patent 7,354,315, a company called Replug, LLC actually manufacture and sell this product at Replug.com -- how the author of this article didn't bother to check is beyond me. In fact, they actually won a design award in 2007 (1 year BEFORE the patent was even approved or published). 

    Calling them patent trolls is probably border line slander IMO. 

    His design does seem to be a cooler, so why not either a) see if you can patent the innovation or b) go get a *job* working with the inventors / entrepreneurs who actually got it done and brought it to market.

    I actually got pretty fired up about this article, and just did a blog post inspired by this here:
    "In Defense of the Evil Patent Trolls"

    http://creditcovers.com/blogs/...

  • jtoscani

    Why doesn't Pogo just team up with Replug, LLC, the owner of the two patents mentioned above? According to the website, Replug hasn't come out with any products since 2008.

  • ari9999

    CORRECTION. PLEASE IGNORE MY PREVIOUS POST. 

    When I think of patent trolls, I think of creativity-killing parasites like Nathan Myhrvold (Intellectual Ventures): people and entities who produce nothing. They game the patent system, perverting it — stifling instead of encouraging innovation and, in the process, causing incalculable damage to society as a whole.   

    The article's evidence doesn't clearly support that charge in this case.   

    Perhaps Jon Patterson, Pogo's inventor, really has built a better mousetrap. I could see where (for instance) Replug might not want a competitor for its own products, and maybe Patterson couldn't come to terms with them in some mutually profitable way.   

    I googled the three patents reported as "problematic." One appears to be assigned to Apple, the other two to Replug LLC, which (according to their website) sells non-magnetic breakaway audio-jack adapters for stuff like laptops and iPhones.   

    Even though Replug has two magnetic patents, perhaps it opted against magnetic breakaways because it, like Belkin and others, feared life-sucking litigation by Apple and parasite trolls.   

    But without talking to the Replug guys, that's just supposition. 

  • ari9999

    When I think of patent trolls, I think of creativity-killing parasites like Nathan Myhrvold (Intellectual Ventures): people and entities who produce nothing. Instead they game the system, perverting it. They game the patent system, perverting it — stifling instead of encouraging innovation and, in the process, causing incalculable damage to society as a whole. 

    The article's evidence doesn't clearly support that charge in this case. 

    I googled the three patents reported as "problematic." One appears to be assigned to Apple, the other two to Replug LLC, which (according to their website) sells non-magnetic breakaway audio-jack adapters for stuff like laptops and iPhones. Perhaps Jon Patterson, Pogo's inventor, really has built a better mousetrap. I could see where (for instance) Replug might not want a competitor for its own products, and maybe Patterson couldn't come to terms with them in some mutually profitable way.Even though Replug has two magnetic patents, perhaps it opted against magnetic breakaways because it, like Belkin and others, feared life-sucking litigation by Apple and parasite trolls. But without talking to the Replug guys, that's just supposition. 

  • Sheldon Wolfe

    The story says nothing to support the involvement of patent trolls. The problem is that at least one magnetic audio connector already has been patented, so the Pogo must be sufficiently different that it would be considered patentable. The spinning feature may be new, but that can be seen as just an improvement on an existing patent. This isn't a problem with the patent system, which is simply protecting another person's innovation, but a failure in marketing. The idea has been there, it just hasn't been used.

    The real question is, why hasn't anyone made use of the existing patents? Did the patent holders attempt to sell their ideas? Are they asking more than Belkin wants to pay?

    If the Pogo is patented, will Patterson expect his patent to
    protect his idea from the introduction of similar products, or will he give it away? Will he see the patent as protection of his invention, or will he see it as crushing innovation by others?

  • Taiyo Nakashima

    Will buy one right away. Heck might get a dozen or so. My MacPro's headphone jack is already bust. Couldn't someone like Sony or Panasonic buy this technology to push things forward?