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Marshals raid CES booth

January 8, 2016, 3:23 PM UTC
Street Style - London Collections: MEN SS16 - June 12 To June 15, 2015
LONDON, ENGLAND - JUNE 12: A guest wears Nike trainers and rides a Hovertrax board on day 1 of London Collections: Men on June 12, 2015 in London, England. (Photo by Kirstin Sinclair/Getty Images)
Photograph by Kirstin Sinclair — Getty Images

While the law enforcement presence at this year’s CES is more prominent than ever before, no one was expecting federal marshals to play a notable role in the show.

Two marshals, however, showed up Thursday to shut down the Changzhou First International Trade Co. booth at the CES main hall, taking away not only product samples, but signs and flyers, according to Bloomberg.

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At issue, apparently, is the hoverboards Changzhou were promoting to buyers. In particular, one called “The Trotter,” a board that housed a single wheel in the middle, caught the attentions of Future Motion, a Silicon Valley startup that claimed it held a patent on the design.

Future Motion, which raised $630,000 on Kickstarter to fund its board, was not a vendor at CES, but did happen to be in Las Vegas to meet with potential business partners when it decided to pursue a complaint against The Trotter, which it first heard of last year after it appeared on Alibaba’s online marketplace for one-third of the cost of Future Motion’s product. The company told Bloomberg that it holds a patent on the design.

Changzhou officials told Bloomberg they plan to retain a lawyer and fight the accusations.

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The raid by marshals was significant for reasons beyond the dispute between the two companies. Knocks-offs and imitations of popular products are often on display at CES, but are generally left alone by the companies they are imitating (which expect them to flame out as year-end draws near). While the cheaper company might reflect poorly on the original, the general mindset has seemed to be that using legal recourses to shut that competitor down could harm the original manufacturer—especially in consumer-facing businesses.

Hoverboards, which don’t actually hover and are, in fact, self-balancing skateboards, have already got an image problem. New York City has banned them (though it’s rethinking that). Most major U.S. airlines don’t allow them on board. And one manufacturer (though one that’s not involved in this CES dispute) is the subject of legal action that’s seeking class action status.

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The rapid rise in popularity of the vehicles/toys has led to a number of Chinese companies making lower-cost (and often lower quality) products that resemble the most popular models of hoverboard companies. Future Motion told Bloomberg it took Thursday’s action to protect the reputation of its products.

Short of a giveaway at CES, there’s nothing that can stop a crowd in its tracks quicker than a raid by federal marshals—especially when it seems obvious that it’s not a publicity stunt. The shutdown of Changzhou attracted more people than the booth had seen previously in the week—though this group wasn’t there to buy. They were there to gawk.