Aussie Plane Pal inventor defends product in ‘copycat’ spat

Samantha Cardone, the founder of Plane Pal. Photo: SuppliedDuelling inventions designed to help kids sleep on planes are at the centre of a copycat spat between an n small business and an American competitor.
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Samantha Cardone’sPlane Pal inflatable cushion, which fits between airline seats lets young children stretch out and sleep on planes.

It wasrecently approved for use on Virgin flights, and her business Plane Pal is anticipated to turn over $1 million this financial year.

But American entrepreneurs Winnie Lu and Kate Kuo, the founders of the Fly Tot kids sleep device, assert Ms Cardone copied their invention even though they admit they have no legal grounds to complain.

Ms Cardoneis adamant her product is her own invention, citing numerous design difference to the Fly Tot and detailing the lengthy process she went through to create her device.

Samantha Cardone with two of her children using the Plane Pal. Photo: Supplied

Developing the Plane Pal”Before launching Plane Pal, I thoroughly researched the kids travelmarket and cameacross several offerings including First Class Kid, Fly Tot, Fly Legs Up andJetKidsBed box, to namea few,” she said.

“Before commencing trade as Plane Pal, I sought specialist advice to ensure Plane Pal did not infringe existing design or patent rights.”

MsCardonesaidshemade sure to establish a “robust portfolio” of intellectual property rights around the Plane Pal brand in and someinternational territories.

Samantha Cardone is the founder of Plane Pal. Photo: Supplied

“Although visual similaritiesmay be noticed between Plane Pal and other inflatable cushions produced around the world, our product is unique,made froma different, lightermaterial and has a distinctive internal structure, offering higher quality and durability,” she said.

“Plane Pal is lighter and stronger than our competitors. Our hand pump allows for faster inflation and our carry bag for easier transport. Fly Tot is just another inflatable likemany others before it, andmanymore that are likely to follow.”

Fly Tot lifts offMs Lu and Ms Kuo started working on the Fly Tot in 2013, with the two mothers desperate for a way to get their childrento sleep on flights.

“I spent a lot of time researching the product design, looking at what design would work best with airline seats,” Ms Lu said.

“We were pretty proud when we came up with a design that could work on both standard and premium economy seats.

The Fly Tot in use. Photo: Kate Kuo

“There was also a lot of back and forth with different manufacturers, including visits to factories in China. Then, of course, over a year doing flight testing of our different prototypes, both for our cushion and for the pump.”

Ms Lu saiddeveloping the pump was the most difficult part.

“All the readily available pumps were too bulky for travelling,” she said. “But developing a custom pump cost thousands of dollars and we didn’t have that kind of money to invest. So we tried to get funding by launching a Kickstarter campaign back in 2014.”

The Fly Tot eventually went on sale in April 2016 and since then Ms Lu said”tens of thousands” of Fly Tot inflatable plane devices hadbeen sold.

Inquiries from Plane PalMs Lu and Ms Kuo saidthey received an email from Ms Cardone in June 2016 asking to be Fly Tot’s distributor in .

“I love your product and have a proven history with retailers,” Ms Cardone’s email seen by Fairfax Media says. “I’d love to chat to you about making Fly Tot big here [in] Aus.”

In a follow-up email, Ms Cardone asks for for more information about the Fly Tot.

“If you are interested in talking further I am happy to sign an NDA [non-disclosure agreement] as obviously I would need information from you to ascertain whether the product would be viable in our market,” she said.

But the business deal never went ahead and they never made a non-disclosure agreement.

Ms Lu and Ms Kuoasked Ms Cardone to set up a Skype chat to discuss acting as a distributor but she never replied to the request and instead ordered a Fly Tot from the site’s website.

Cardone then contacted a manufacturer in China that makes Fly Tots.

“I understand your company produces a customised plastic cushion for use on airplanes for an American company,” Ms Cardone.

“I am interested in producing a similar product for a different international market. Could you please advise if you are able to produce an item similar to the one you are already producing with my branding? I would like to start with 200 units.”

Plane Pal launchesMs Cardone launched Plane Pal in December 2016 and once Ms Lu and Ms Kuo became aware of the product the pair engaged an n lawyer and sent a letter of demand to Plane Pal.

“In the end, we were told our case just wasn’t strong enough,” MsLu said.

“The main reason is we failed to register for a patent for our product before we began selling it in .”

While Fly Tot has a patent pending in the United States it does not have a patent in .

“As we have eventually learned, you cannot file for a patent once the product has been on the market,” Ms Lu said.”It is a system that simply does not seem to protect the innovators.”

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