The annual Consumer Electronics Show, currently running in Las Vegas, is where you go to see the gadgets of the future today. But among the 4K TVs, personal drones, and gaming treadmills, it’s the selfie stick — a straightforward and relatively simple object — that has, forgive the pun, stolen the show and dominated the conversation. But Wayne Fromm, who claims to have invented the selfie stick, is concerned with what he thinks is a different kind of theft.
If you went on vacation last year, or even live somewhere where other people go on vacation, you’ve seen the selfie stick — a rod on which you can mount your iPhone to take otherwise hard-to-snap selfies and group photos. There’s no doubt that selfie-stick users look foolish — like someone with extreme farsightedness trying to read a text message — but the device’s practicality has proven irresistible. An estimated 100,000 selfie sticks were bought in the U.S. in the month leading up to Christmas. It’s not just Americans who love them, either. In Britain, to pick just one example, eBay users this past December searched the auction site for selfie sticks 28,000 times — per week.
Naturally, such a popular object has inspired a torrent of analysis. There are haters and praisers and less-polarized musers. Fromm’s perspective is different, and specific. He says — and has a patent to back him up — that the selfie stick is his baby. But it’s not just a cut that he wants — his selfie stick, dubbed the Quik Pod, has sold well, but not gangbusters, swallowed as it was by a surplus of competitors — it’s credit and fairness that he’s after. Seeing how his idea has been copied, laments Fromm, “is like somebody stealing your child.”
Fromm came up with the idea for a selfie stick while on vacation in the early 2000s. He and his daughter Sage were visiting Florence, Italy, and like so many visitors, decided to stop by the Ponte Vecchio. The old bridge is jammed with tourists, making it nearly impassable during the day and, thought Fromm, impractical to find a gap long enough in the crowd to snap a picture without someone walking into your shot. So, after his visit, he decided to try to fix the situation.
“I kept thinking,” says Fromm, a youthful 60-year-old Torontonian, “How could we take a photograph together?” Speaking over the phone from a vacation home in Florida just days before departing for CES, Fromm recalls the photographic challenges of the pre-selfie-stick era: how someone was always missing from photos because they had to hold the camera, or the annoyance of having to ask strangers to take the picture for you.
“You could set the camera up on garbage cans or whatnot, on a little ledge here or there,” says Fromm, “but the camera was always at risk of falling, or you would have something close to the lens that would obstruct a bit of the view.” The whole situation, he says, “was a bit of a nuisance.”
Fromm, who earns a living inventing kids’ toys (the Beauty and the Beast Magic Talking Mirror was a big one), first attempted to solve the photo problem by deconstructing umbrellas. He adapted their extendable handles and whittled down the spring-loaded push buttons for ease of use. He bolted pieces together with quarter-inch, 20-thread screws and adorned his new stick with a shiny, stainless-steel thumbtack, the sharp pin near the nose broken off. That’s where the convex mirror required to reflect back the camera’s viewfinder to the user would go. Ultimately, this modified umbrella became selfie-stick prototype No. 1.
All told, Fromm went through a hundred iterations. By his own reckoning, he spent “hundreds upon hundreds upon hundreds” of hours on the project. “As far as the world thinks,” he says, the product “was an overnight success. But it was very difficult.”
In 2005, once he had a decent design finalized, Fromm filed for patents for his “Apparatus for supporting a camera and method for using the apparatus.” (In the last few days, pictures of a “Self-portrait camera stick” have emerged, taken from a 1995 compendium of chindogu, or useless Japanese inventions, which it’s said can’t be patented. Both were technically beaten to the idea of an extendable monopod for clicking a camera’s shutter by a smitten couple 70 or 80 years ago.)
After Fromm’s paperwork was approved, he had a decision to make: how far to extend the reach of his patent. “I had already spent so much money on patents I had abandoned on earlier inventions,” says Fromm, who’d been burned by the relative commercial failure of previous products that he’d tried to sell in Asia. The cost for a patent with an international reach can run to $100,000, and Fromm decided to retain the rights to his design in the United States and Canada only.
“It was a tough choice,” he admits. And, in hindsight, it was probably the wrong one. Selfie sticks, which generally retail for between $20 and $40, are manufactured largely in China. “Factories,” Fromm argues, “just cloned my exact invention.”
Well, maybe. Bart Lazar, an intellectual property lawyer for Seyfarth Shaw in Chicago, explains that while “a utility patent” like the one Fromm holds “does grant the holder exclusive rights to sell a product in the United States,” it doesn’t prevent someone from making a similar product. “There are all sorts of ways to get around a patent,” says Lazar. “You can’t patent an idea, only a specific way of doing something. If one selfie stick uses a spring to extend and another uses a slide, that might mean it’s not patent infringement.”
Still, it’s not just his concept that Fromm says has been pinched. He says that not long after debuting his product, the packaging design — down to the photographs he had taken of himself, his daughter Sage, and family friends — used to illustrate usage of the Quik Pod began appearing on similar products around the world, including at a Florida pharmacy he stopped into when visiting his mother one Christmas. That was particularly irksome. “If you don’t pay any money to do any R&D or even packaging photos and design,” Fromm grouses, “it’s a lot cheaper to duplicate something than it is to create something.”
Fromm has engaged a legal team to file lawsuits against those who have stocked products that lift his packaging design, and letters have been sent to retailers to advise them about copyright infringement. Even if litigation could help his bottom line, it’s not something he enjoys. “Litigation is expensive, and the emotional cost is very high. It takes me away from what I enjoy, which is inventing.” He adds, “I’m just waiting for the stores to move on to extendable back-scratchers, e-cigarettes, or some other stuff they consider to be a filler product.”
Other selfie sticks perhaps, in essence, are Quik Pod knockoffs, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re illegal. “You may believe something is a knockoff,” says Lazar, “but really what happened is that someone was inspired by a product that already existed, and then decided to make something that achieves a similar function but in a different way.” Indeed, at CES, there’s a cornucopia of selfie-stick accessories on display: flashes, panorama extensions, and such. These aren’t legally problematic. And selfie sticks themselves, manufactured largely in Asia (the Chinese city of Shenzhen is a hot spot) by relatively unknown brands, typically have some distinguishing feature, be it a remote control, Bluetooth buttons, or high-speed shutter response time, that also help get around patent violations.
Fromm, of course, would likely be less frustrated by all this if he’d been able to ride the selfie-stick wave to riches. But his version, the Quik Pod, was hidden in plain sight before the selfie stick exploded into the Zeitgeist. For nearly a decade, the inventor schlepped between trade shows and TV studios, hawking his product on home-shopping networks. In 2007, the Quik Pod made appearances in the hands of Jay Leno and Matt Lauer, respectively, on The Tonight Show and the Today show. That same year, the Quik Pod was featured in the Washington Post’s “It Came in the Mail” column: “An occasional look at products the travel industry insists we need,” placing it alongside similarly frivolous SkyMall–style products. It was even written up in the New York Times.
“We sold a lot of them, but it required a lot of demonstration,” says Fromm. “We couldn’t get critical mass. I would do in-store demonstrations in Toronto, in New York City, wherever I could. I would send teams of people. When people saw it, they liked it. But the metrics didn’t make sense to roll [the product] out on a large scale.”
Fromm never reached a tipping point, but everybody else did — now, the Quik Pod is just one of many selfie-stick manufacturers that rose up to meet this new demand. Indeed, in the time between Fromm debuting his product and now, digital cameras — including those built into phones — are far more prevalent than they were in the mid-2000s. (The first-generation iPhone wasn’t released until 2007.) Those cameras have gotten better and better, and the rise of Instagram, Facebook, Tinder, and other photo-driven forms of social media have all fed a desire to take more self-portraits. Even the concept of the selfie as we know it is still a fresh phenomenon.
“The word selfie,” Fromm notes, “hadn’t yet been invented” when he started selling Quik Pods. The selfie stick, he argues, “predates so many things that I don’t think anyone could’ve imagined when I launched it in 2006.”
Fromm sighs. “I believed in this thing a long time ago,” he says. “The world caught up.”