Did Barnes & Noble steal a rival's design for the Nook e-reader?

Barnes & Noble (BKS) last month introduced its e-book reader Nook (pictured), a competitor to Amazon (AMZN)'s Kindle, that it's slated to begin shipping around Thanksgiving. The Nook announcement overshadowed that of a competitor called Alex, from Spring Design, a little-known Silicon Valley company.

When Spring Design announced Alex, tech site Engadget dismissed it as a "desperate" also-ran that, like Nook, features a combination six-inch e-ink screen and three-inch LCD screen, has Wi-Fi capability, and uses Google's Android as its operating system. But Spring Design says Nook, not Alex, is the copy-cat -- and it's suing Barnes & Noble for violating non-disclosure agreements and misappropriating trade secrets.
Non-Disclosure Agreement?

Spring Design last month alleged that it discussed the Alex's features and capabilities with Barnes & Noble early this year. The exchange of meetings, emails, and conference calls with executives -- up to BN.com's president -- were bound by non-disclosure agreements, Spring Design says. The company also says that Barnes & Noble execs praised its e-reader's innovative features, which Spring Design patented in 2006.

"We showed the Alex e-book design to Barnes & Noble in good faith, with the intention of working together to provide a superior dual screen e-book to the market," Eric Kmiek, Spring Design's VP of sales and marketing, said in the release. "Unfortunately, [Spring Design] had to take the appropriate action to protect its intellectual property rights." Barnes & Noble hasn't commented on the suit.

The similarities between the Nook and the Alex only go so far -- the Alex allows web browsing, while the Nook's touchscreen is for navigation purposes only, with content limited to the e-Ink screen. But if Spring Design's lawyers can prove that B&N violated its non-disclosure agreement, the splash of the Nook's introduction -- and its future as a Kindle-killer -- seem less of a sure thing.
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