DJI accused of copyright infringement in the US… by a Chinese-owned company
DJI, the world’s biggest civilian drone maker, could potentially be banned from selling some of its products in the US after being accused of copyright infringement by drone maker Autel Robotics.
But it turns out the company trying to bar DJI from the US isn’t a native American company -- it’s a branch of a company from China.
Autel Robotics USA LLC, who says it designs, manufactures and sells drones in the US, filed a complaint to the US International Trade Commission. It asked for a ban on imports of DJI drones, including the Mavic series, Spark, Phantom series and Inspire series.
While this looks like another trade spat between the US and China at first sight, people are pointing out that Autel Robotics USA LLC is actually the US branch of Shenzhen-headquartered Autel Intelligent Technology, according to Autel’s own Chinese website, Chinese media reports and China’s National Enterprise Credit Information Publicity System.
It appears that Autel does not sell drones in China: There’s no Autel product on sale either on its Chinese website or on ecommerce platforms, but it claims to be “one of the most popular brands of ready-to-fly UAVs in the US”.
In its complaint, Autel Robotics says that DJI violated section 337 by invading three of its patents, respectively on automatic speed adjusting, rotor assembly, and battery assembly.
Autel also added that it has the capacity to meet the increased demand if DJI products were to be excluded from the US market, which would “improve competitive conditions” for Autel and other drone makers.
A spokesperson says that DJI has no comment about Autel Robotics’ complaint.
The US International Trade Commission has issued a notice of receipt of the complaint, and it typically takes 15 to 18 months for them to complete an investigation and reach a final decision.
The two companies has been caught in legal battles before. DJI sued Autel in 2016 for copying its Phantom line, and Autel also sued DJI in April this year. Now it seems like Autel has changed tactics: While the US federal court seldom blocks sales of competing product, but it’s not unusual for the trade commission to issue import bans, according to Bloomberg.
It would be a big setback for DJI if Autel won the investigation, given that the US is an important market for the company, but it’s too early to tell at this point. The number of copyright infringement investigations under section 337 involving Chinese companies rose from 10 in 2014 to 22 in 2017, but most of them ended up settled privately, with less than 5% going to trial in the US, according to South China Morning Post.