China is “killing us” on trade, as Donald TrumpDonald TrumpMan sentenced to nearly four years for running scam Trump, Biden PACs Meadows says Trump's blood oxygen level was dangerously low when he had COVID-19 Trump endorses David Perdue in Georgia's governor race MORE is fond of asserting, but this is more than mere campaign hyperbole. As a recent raid by U.S. federal marshals at the Consumer Electronics Show last month reminds us, American innovators do face legitimate threats both foreign and domestic in today’s globalized economy.

Citing accusations of patent infringement, the marshals confiscated a one-wheeled electric skateboard produced by Chinese company Changzhou First International Trade. The product was conceptually derived from the hoverboard - a similar self-balancing device, but with two wheels, that has become popular in recent years. The American company Future Motion had invented and patented a remarkably similar one-wheeled skateboard called the Onewheel, and after weeks of effort Future Motion had finally convinced a federal court in Las Vegas to issue a restraining order, seizure order, and temporary injunction against Changzhou.


The incident represents a black eye for the Consumer Electronics Association, which has actively pushed Congress to weaken our patent system and ignored one of the big arguments for maintaining robust patent laws: the influx of cheap Chinese competitors undercutting inventors' ideas. The raid at the CEA's own trade show, ironically, provides a window into what will happen if it succeeds in convincing Congress to overhaul our patent system. Chinese competitors will increasingly bring knockoff products to market that violate intellectual property rights and put American innovators out of business.

Our patent system provides American innovators with a crucial competitive edge. China has a spotty record (at best) on intellectual property issues, and we cannot make it easier for foreign competitors to erode that competitive edge by skipping R&D costs. As we saw at the CES, strong patent protections are especially important for small companies like Future Motion to protect their inventions and make their product viable. It is in companies like Future Motion that we find the story of American achievement that lies at the heart of our nation’s prosperity. Founder Kyle Doerkson quit his job to start the company. He raised funding through a Kickstarter campaign and did his due diligence in applying for a patent, starting the process several years ago. He was awarded a patent for the underlying technology in August and for the design this January, and eventually the rule of law came through for him to protect his rights.

Congress can and should take steps to crack down on abuses in our patent system, of course, but the proposed legislation trumpeted by CEA and crony corporate tech interests like Google is a far cry from the small, targeted adjustments that would better protect innovators like Doerkson. These proposed patent overhauls aren’t about protecting the little guy and making an equal playing field for innovators, they’re about tech companies like Google (whose patent applications have soared in recent years) leveraging its crony government connections to skew patent laws in their favor. It’s the kind of patent reform that knockoff manufacturers from China want.

The policies that CEA is pushing would water down our patent laws and open the door to the kind of fraudulent competition that degrades – rather than protects – incentives for innovation. It’s bad enough to have U.S. marshals disrupt your trade show, but it would be far worse to host an event hamstrung by cheap products based on stolen ideas and full of inventors operating in fear.

Telford is the president of the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity.