Why Intellectual Property Matters in Sports Technology

By: Tammy J. Dunn

Imagine spending millions of dollars in research and development to develop some of the best and most innovative sports technology products available.  Imagine spending as much, if not more, on top marketing and advertising to develop a brand name synonymous with success in the industry.  Imagine that feeling of having “arrived” after years of hard work, sleepless nights, and making sacrifices no one ever told you in college you would have to make as an adult.  Imagine then, watching a new competitor pop up seemingly overnight who capitalizes on all of your hard work, your blood, sweat and tears, not to mention equity, and blast into the marketplace with what they are saying is the “next best” version of your product at a fraction of the price.  This scenario is not rare and it is not new.  It is often exactly how competition in a free market economy works.  So then, what can a sports technology company do to protect itself from these competitive freeloaders?  One answer is the employment of vigorous intellectual property asset management.

Columbia Sportswear Co. is an example of a company that has learned how important protection of its intellectual property assets can be.  Columbia Sportswear, a well-known company for sportswear particularly in cold weather sports such as skiing and snowboarding, has become known for its patented “Omni-Heat Reflective Technology” using intellectual property, such as design and utility patents. Omni-Heat is made from a material that optimizes the use of body heat to keep the wearer warm, while allowing for breathability and moisture wicking.  Columbia Sportswear patented the technology and various designs in 2012, and has incorporated Omni-Heat into ski jackets, gloves, and other cold-weather sports gear.  It didn’t take long for Seirus Innovation Accessories, a San Diego snow gear company, to come onto the scene with its HeatWave products, which include a variety of different types of gloves.

Beginning in 2013, Columbia Sportswear began a campaign to protect its intellectual property rights from infringement by Seirus by filing a series of three patent infringement suits against Seirus; one in the state of Washington, one in Oregon, and one in San Diego, California.  In each of these cases, Columbia Sportswear was able to obtain at least partly favorable judgments.  The most recent results were obtained in San Diego, where the case based on three of Columbia Sportswear’s patents went through a full jury trial in September 2017.  After a two week trial, the jury delivered a $3,000,000 verdict in favor of Columbia Sportswear.  Though there were also findings that partially invalidated one of Columbia Sportswear’s patents, the company has publicly stated that it will seek to overturn those findings and continues to maintain numerous patents around the world related to their Omni-Heat designs.

The take-home lesson here is that intellectual property rights matter in many industries, and Sports Technology is one of them.  Intellectual property assets have value, deserve to be protected, and their associated rights enforced.  Whether protection is sought through a robust patenting program coupled with a sophisticated patent enforcement strategy, a branding protection program (i.e., trademarks), or a program protecting trade secrets, all are ways to safeguard and enhance the value of your intellectual property.  The next question for you is whether you want your company to learn how to capitalize on these incredibly valuable assets.