The Scribble Pen, you may remember, is a project by bay area startup Scribble Technology that puts a color sensor and multiple ink reservoirs in a pen. We’ve talked about it before, right after they cancelled their Kickstarter campaign after netting 366% of their original goal.
Yes, they cancelled their campaign after being successfully funded. To Kickstarter’s credit, the Scribble team was asked to provide a better video of the pen demonstrating its capabilities. The team pulled the plug on the campaign, saying they’ll be back soon.
Here is the new campaign. The attentive reader will notice the new campaign is not a Kickstarter project; instead, it is a Tilt campaign. What is Tilt? It’s a platform that allows for crowdfunding, fundraising, pooling, and other ‘many wallets into one’ Internet-based projects. It’s actually not a bad idea if you’re raising funds for a charity or the Jamaican bobsled team. For crowdfunded product development, caveat emptor doesn’t quite cover it.
With more than $200,000 in the bank, you would think the questions asked in many comments on the old Kickstarter would be answered. They were. Scribble put up a new video showing the pen drawing different colors of ink on a piece of paper. This video was faked. [Ch00f] at Drop Kicker took apart the new video frame by frame and found these – ahem – scribbles were inserted in post production. The video has since been replaced on the Tilt campaign page, but evidence of Scribble deleting comments questioning this exists.
Any idea of the Scribble pen being real has been put to bed. Kickstarter threatened to remove the campaign if a better video could not be produced within 24 hours. The Scribble team cancelled their campaign to regroup and put together a better video. In two weeks, the team was only able to produce a faked video. The Scribble pen does not exist.
Case closed, you might think. Digging into videos frame by frame will tell you a lot, but it won’t give you the full picture. We know what happened with the Scribble pen, but very little about the who, why, and how this huge, glaringly obvious fraud occurred. Before we get to that, hold on to your hats – it only gets shadier from here on out.
For months, the people behind Scribble have worked hard to ‘control the message,’ so to speak, not only of what their pen can do, but who is on the development team, and how far along they are in the development process. From the outside, Scribble appears to be a finely tuned corporate organism; official statements are only made through the Scribble Facebook account, Twitter account, and as comments on the now defunct Kickstarter. It’s an honestly stunning display of staying on message, but something that does not lead to any points of contact within Scribble.
Who then is behind Scribble? The company line is simply of a startup based in San Francisco that has been working for two years to bring this product to market. There are references to an engineer and color scientist on the Scribble team, but so far, only three people have lent their names to the company.
In all the media coverage Scribble has gotten from dozens of tech blogs, we know of only three people who are officially part of the Scribble team. The founders and inventors of Scribble, [Mark Barker] and [Robert Hoffman] were mentioned and quoted by several media outlets. [Kevin Harrison], another member of the Scribble team, has only been mentioned in a piece by The Guardian that has since been picked up and copied by a number of other tech and design blogs. Not one of these three people can be found on LinkedIn as being employed by Scribble, or even working in the San Francisco area in a tech startup. Outside of the many blog posts on the Scribble pen, these people do not exist on the Internet.
A Registered Company
Not being able to identify the founders and employees of a company is one thing, but not being able to identify the company itself is another matter entirely. Searching through the California state records for businesses using the word “scribble” in their name, only one such business hails from San Francisco. This business was registered over twelve years ago, and is obviously not the Scribble in question. The fact that Scribble is not a business licensed by the state of California is not evidence it is not a business in California, though; smart startups would probably register in either Delaware or Nevada. Here again, Scribble is not to be found. In fact, in all fifty states, there is no record of a company named Scribble registered in the past two years.
There is one reason why Scribble can not be found in any state registry of businesses: Scribble could be ‘Doing Business As.’ This means the founders of the company would be held personally liable for any legal action taken against the company. If Scribble does not fulfill its preorders, anyone who contributed to this campaign could file a suit, get a judgement against the owners of Scribble, and get a sheriff’s deputy to clean out their house. This would be a shocking display of ignorance on behalf of the Scribble team. I simply can not imagine anyone lacking in business sense so much they would open themselves up to this sort of liability.
With any sort of business that is developing something new and novel, it’s a good idea to have a trademark for your business and your product. Lucky, then, that we can search for US Trademarks. There are a few registered trademarks for products called ‘Scribble’ – a toy scooter, eyeliner, and one for corrugated paperboard making machines.
This does not prove there is not a trademark application for a Scribble pen – considering the Scribble Facebook page was set up in May of this year, we’re right on the threshold of when the trademark application would be published. Given the lack of a registered business, and any sort mention on the Internet of the people working on Scribble, it’s improbable there are any trademark applications pending.
More transparency than Kickstarter, at least
A few people at Tilt, the company powering Scribble’s current crowdfunding campaign, have been looking into the people and the company. In fact, the CEO of Tilt is looking into it personally:
— James Beshara (@jjbeshara) September 3, 2014
The failings of tech journalism
The last time we mentioned the Scribble pen, I noticed something strange about their campaign. They used the Hackaday logo when the only thing ever published here was a single paragraph in a links post calling the entire project ridiculous.
Like many Kickstarters, they had a few logos of blogs and other media outlets below the fold, put there a statement of legitimacy. “These are trusted members of the fourth estate,” the creators of Scribble must have told themselves, “surely telling the world we have the approval of these fine upstanding establishments will lend us an air of credibility and legitimacy.”
There’s a problem with this. When the only thing tech bloggers and journalists have to go on are a few videos, a media kit, and a Kickstarter campaign, the only information available comes directly from the project creators. This inevitably leads to a deafening echo chamber where the same facts are repeated ad nauseam.
The idea of a color picking pen has been around for years, with thousands of people ready to throw their money into a hole in the hopes of getting their hands on one. It makes for great blog fodder and grabs eyeballs, but plugging a Kickstarter simply by repeating what a press release says does the public a grave disservice. Even the more respectable media outlets failed in this regard; the longest articles on Scribble added a little to their page length simply by interviewing the inventors who I’m not sure actually exist. The Guardian, in fact, interviewed someone who was never before mentioned as a member of the Scribble team. Remember, The Guardian is one of the best and most trustworthy news organizations on the planet and published information that cannot be independently verified.
Given the vast number of tech and design blogs in the last month reporting on the Scribble pen, someone must be held responsible for correcting these grave errors. This responsibility falls on us and other excellent blogs like Drop Kicker.
If the technical wizards and cognoscenti of electrons reading this come across a project that just makes you shake your head, do a little preliminary research and tell us what you’ve found. Since no other media outlet on the Internet is capable of doing so, we’ll do our best to scare the pants off these would-be scammers.