Bristle Bot Controversy


When the Bristlebots were released back in 2007 by Evil Mad Scientist Laboratories, we all thought they were pretty cool. Apparently someone at Klutz did too. They have released a book, with the title “Invasion of the BristleBots”. The bots seem to be identical and the name is identical. There is no mention of Evil Mad Scientist Laboratories anywhere in it. [Phillip Torrone] has attempted to contact Klutz and the book publisher Scholastic directly to find out more information.

[Windell] and [Lenore] from EMSL had this to say:

“This is the first that I’ve heard of it. Frankly, I am a bit offended. Klutz makes some nice things, and I’m surprised that they wouldn’t have contacted us, asked permission, or at least given us credit. (Locomotion by ratcheting bristles isn’t remotely new — it occurs in nature — but the name ‘Bristlebot’ is surely ours, and I don’t know of any prior implementation with a toothbrush.)”

You probably know EMSL from their other projects such as the Peggy and Meggy jr. How would you feel if a project you did was published without credit? Would you care or not?

66 thoughts on “Bristle Bot Controversy

  1. It might just be a case of different paths converging to the same solution. It’s not like it has more than 3-4 parts.

    If it had more parts you could say it’s an idea but with current toothbrushes having electric motors it’s not such a leap to think someone might come up with the same idea.

  2. It’s happened to me, kinda (a program I wrote ended up on a CD distributed with a magazine; the application was described on the cover and seemed to be used to sell the magazine – the app was free) … although it’s a bummer, you kind of have to expect this when you give away your ideas. I think they absolutely should have given inspiration credit, as a sign of respect, but it’s only something you can hope for, not demand.

  3. If I released something for free and it was used by someone else, cited or not, I wouldn’t really care. However, in a case where I release something and then someone turns around and makes a profit off of it then its an issue.

  4. re: Martin on Dorkbot

    The name and design of “bristlebot” is much different to that.

    Toothbristle robot and “tooth-brush driven” robot are two very different things.

    Attributions? Whatever, it would still be nice if some links or sources were given. (Putting out a book without sources? Did anyone pay attention in English class?)

  5. I’m wondering if there would be space to put two phone motors on there and a smd microcontroller and a few mosfets for motor control – then you could program it to be a real micro-bot.

    The noise from the motors might be a problem, and keeping the circuit tiny could be hard, but it sounds doable.

  6. It wouldn’t so much be the money to me, but the credit would really piss me off, its like how cheap can you be, to not even cite where you got the idea from? And in the spirit of all this, it would seem that most creators of this stuff, would want their name attached, so people who do modify their ideas, can reciprocate them, and send the original author, their modifications, perhaps to be incorporated into the original, similar to the GPL or one of those. And if you do plan on making money off someone else’s idea, maybe out of courtesy, reward the people who have good ideas, with some monetary resources, to help them out on their next great idea, who knows, it could be your next money making project.

  7. Two or more people coming up with the same idea is nothing new at all – I’ve recently took up archery again after doing it many years ago but I’ve got a problem aiming because my right eye is crap so I’ve come up with the idea of putting a wireless CCD camera on the bow & viewing the camera feed with some LCD glasses. Did a google search and found a company have made a wireless camera for bows so hunters can record their adventures, but nobody else has thought of using it as a sight setup with LCD glasses. If someone went ahead and made money off that idea then that would be cool because I don’t have the resources to setup such a venture. I would be somewhat pissed if someone clearly ripped off an original idea I came up with.
    Anyway this bristle bot thing is a clear rip-off of evil mad scientist’s idea and Klutz deserve all the flak they get for not acknowledging the source of their new revenue stream.

  8. This is pretty clearly a case of klutz being legally in the right but morally very wrong. You can’t copyright an idea (vibe motor on toothbrush head), only the expression of an idea (article or book about it). You can’t copyright a name, and it’s unlikely emsl registered it as a trade mark. And while emsl could probably have patented it, it would have been expensive and pointless and still wouldn’t protect them from someone else writing a book about how to build it. so legally all clear, but still jerkwads for not crediting the source, and deserving all the ridicule they might receive for doing it.

  9. Martin I’m sure the video is indeed older by a few days, but regardless that name “BristleBot” was indeed mentioned by EMSI before the book was published. And as mentioned the action of using a brush to move in that matter is nothing new, but the branding of the name is the legal object in question.

  10. @localroger

    If EMSL even went as far as to say “Bristlebot ™” anywhere, it would be protected. One does not need to register a trademark, except to document its existence. If you can prove reasonably that you called ‘dibs’ on the name first, then you can protect your trademark. Much like a copyright doesn’t have to be registered in order to be valid.

  11. Uhm, my mother came up with the idea for a video rental store in 1955. Video rental stores didn’t start until 1977 (magnetic rental). She likely came up with the idea long before any commercial venture was planned, however she did not patent anything or register “Magnetic Video” or even start a store and popularize the concept, while there is a difference in this case that these guys already HAD put a motor and battery on a toothbrush, it is sorta like one of those “Oh well, big guys win again”. And Klutz could have easily come up with the name independently. It’s “Bristlebot” not “ZORGBLORBOT MIGHTY ROBOT PROTECTOR”, simple alliteration. So yeah.

    Sorry, barely coherent right now. Not the best grammar.


  12. If this idea was ripped or converged upon, it happened more than once. A book published in 1988 in Soviet Union called “From Idea To Prototype” (“От идеи до модели”) detailed some interesting hobby projects, one of which was very similar to a bristlebot.

    I Googled around and found some relevant content. The following links are in Russian, but can be translated with Babelfish.

    Some relevant content from the book may be found here:

    And according to this, the original idea started in America in 1963:

    Some of the books “От идеи до модели” are apparently still in circulation:

  13. …but I guess the controversy is about using toothbrush heads, calling it a “bristlebot,” (since that’s already obvious plagiarism) and making a profit to top it all off.

  14. @andar_b: you’re right, but really only if they used the tm designator, just as your copyright claim is much iffier if you don’t actually put a copyright notice on it when you publish it. i’m pretty sure emsl didn’t bother with the tm designator (how many would bother?) probably not dreaming it would be ripped off in such a direct and contemptuous manner.

  15. I used to be a leading designer in paranormal equipment, until some c**t called frank ripped me off. I don’t bother anymore. Everyone I tell about it asked me why i didn’t patent it? What kind of hobbiest can afford patents! So much for opensource.

  16. I think this sucks for the guys at Evil mad.

    There youtube video got 2 millions hits!

    Yes it is possible that they never heard or see that device move. But come on.

    This is really hard to tell. With the same name, that is odd.

  17. @trapezoid – those kits are cool, it’s even cooler that they credit EMS, that’s the big question here – does klutz / scholastic feel they should credit… here’s what the kit maker in the UK said…

    “They started life as small, toothbrush based bots – as this great article on Evil Mad Scientist explains.”

    if klutz did that i’m pretty sure everyone would be happy, but instead they’ve issued a new statement that says they invented the exact same thing with the exact same name *before* EMS (same year).

  18. I wouldn’t like it, but what are you going to do about it. I don’t think emsl is really out there to take klutz down, so I’d probably let it go. With small contributions (read: small open source software contributions), I wouldn’t care to much. Use my code whatever you want. But if somebody copied my complete app with the same name without giving me credit, thats just not cool…

  19. It’s total coincidence… happened to me when I discovered that a peizo speaker is a good acoustic guitar pickup, a few days later a similar post of that hack is uploaded in this very website… though the publisher could have done more research, and if they did, they could’ve given credit…

  20. Who cares?

    Did he patent the idea? Is the name trademarked?
    No. He actually encourages people to make their own in his blogpost.

    The fact that someone else succeeds in marketing it better might sting, but that’s too bad. He gave it away and someone smarter now makes money off it. Boo-hoo.

    Crediting is merely a sign of politeness. Klutz is not polite, we know that now, still not a big deal.

  21. I think it’s fairly obvious that the design of the bristlebot is not anything complicated or earthshattering, but the name “Bristlebot” is pretty unique. The fact that Evil Mad put it out there on the internet with that name long before Klutz’ book is a bit suspect.
    Legally, Klutz is in the clear, but ethically, they screwed up IMHO.
    The sad thing is that a book that inspires children toward building electronic devices could have benefited greatly from a link to Evil Mad’s website. This would have given those reading the book a place to go to find even more cool electronics projects.

    At this point, the only recourse any of us, who post projects, hacks or new ideas online, have against a company turning a profit on our ideas is shame. I say call out companies who do this and shame them into being more careful to give credit where credit is due.

  22. this already happened to me. shortly after posting my schematic for modding the boss dr-110 drum machine to accept Roland din sync 24, all sorts of people came out with their own flavor of my discovery and none of them gave me props. thanks lamers! you know who you are.

    I didn’t mind too much since my goal was to give artists the ability to add the 110 to their setup as I have. however, it did bother me when a few places began profiting from my ideas by merely performing my mod on customer’s 110s. it isn’t hard to figure out who these “companies” are. they are no loss lame then the individuals mentioned above.

    all of this is old news now, but I did revisit my mod to scale it down while adding a few new features. these updated schematics will remain under my hat ;)

  23. Ok does anyone realize that it is completely possible they did come up with the idea with out possibly even hearing about the mad scientest..The name bristle bot could of even been some of the possible names of the design… As far as crediting the two originators after the fact would leave the company in a possible legal grey spot.. More then likely the huge company thought they had an original idea and decided to run with it and later found a DOH….. (slap on the forhead) the only thing that is possible to be blamed would be there research department who probably scanned the patten office and left it at that..

  24. Anyone still following this situation (well, reading this) should checkout the Amazon page for the book, there are 6 tags under the “Tags Customers Associate with This Product” section:

    stolen idea (14)
    copyright infringement (6)
    piracy (5)
    ripoff (4)
    theft (4)
    evil mad scientist labratories (1)

    looks like people are pissed at Klutz, they’ve released a statement about the situation but it hasn’t stopped people badmouthing them:

  25. and it’s over — thanks for your help.

    And it’s over – Scholastic and Klutz will credit Evil Mad Scientist’s “BristleBots”

    Here the final note on the “BristleBots” we’ve been covering here – Lenore from Evil Mad Scientist writes –

    Pat Murphy of Klutz will be sending out a note shortly to let everyone know that Evil Mad Scientist Laboratories will be receiving acknowledgment in the next printing of Invasion of the BristleBots as well as on the Klutz website. This is good news for us, and it seems like Klutz is really learning from this experience about how to work with the maker community. The online response to this situation has been overwhelming and I am glad that such an incredibly vibrant discussion was able to take place. I am truly impressed by and grateful for the support we have received.


  26. That’s great to hear, but I’m very interested to see the actual printed ackowledgement Klutz will give EMSL, how it’s actually worded could say volumes about what they really think the situation is.

  27. I did wonder about using the little “pancake” mobile phone motors used in Samsung and others.

    Also by changing the direction you might be able to steer it as centrifugal force will cause an equal and opposite reaction.


  28. Vibration motors are available at (a bit expensive but the only source I know for flat, shaftless motors)

    As for this EMSL thing, they did not invent the bristlebots, but merely coined the term. How about they cite *their* sources ? I could not find them in their original article. Also, if you don’t want someone else to make money off your ideas, either don’t publish them or patent them.

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