Let’s face it, 2016 was a great year for sneakers. Sneakerheads across the country were routinely salivating over several high-profile releases, including the Air Jordan IV White Cement, the Acronym x Air Presto, the Special Forces Air Force 1, the Triple White NMD, Rihanna’s Fenty x Puma collab, and of course more Yeezy Boosts.
Yet, perhaps the two most hyped releases were originally featured in high-profile motion pictures: the Air Jordan 11 “Space Jam” and the Nike Air Mag (better known as Marty McFly’s sneakers from the 1989 classic Back to the Future Part II).
— Star Feedz (@ClarkeTremaine) May 30, 2017
The Nike Air Mag sneaker was dreamed up by legendary shoe designer Tinker Hatfield for the movie. As a result, Hatfield gave the shoe a futuristic look with a twist. In the film, Michael J Fox’s character never actually had to tie his shoes because, in this futuristic world, shoes tied automatically.
In recent years, Nike designers led by Tiffany Beers have made this one-time dream a practical reality and Nike technology now actually allows the shoe to tie itself. However, the Air Mag was an extremely exclusive release of only 89 pairs that came with a hefty price tag and was mostly available through auctions and raffles. This made it difficult for the average consumer to get their hands on this technology.
As a result, earlier this year, Nike unveiled the HyperAdapt 1.0 that also contains auto-lacing and is more readily available to the average consumer but comes at a $720 price. As with most luxury items and breakout technologies, the consumer must sacrifice a reasonable price point in favor of high-end quality until Nike produces enough auto-lacing sneakers at scale to lower the manufacturing costs and decrease the price.
— SportTechie (@SportTechie) March 17, 2016
While the price puts this technology out of reach for the average person right now, it could have a profound impact on the industry down the road. Once readily available, the technology can prevent athletes from coming out of their shoes during competition, allow a consistently perfect fit for your daily jog, and even provide a solution for the elderly or disabled who have trouble tying shoe laces. In order to grasp the importance of Nike’s evolutionary jump in lacing technology, it is important to understand the legal implications of the technology and what it means for competitors and consumers.
Nike first filed a patent for early iterations of the “automatic lacing technology” technology in 2008 and have since submitted several other patents related to the technology, most recently in 2014. In order to receive a patent, the inventor must put forward a detailed description of the invention to ensure that it meets the criteria of being novel, useful, and non-obvious. Patents are meant to encourage innovation by providing protections to its creator. More specifically, under the law, patents do not provide a right to make, use, or sell. Instead, patents provide the ability to exclude others from using the technology. When the United States Patent and Trademark Office issues a utility patent, the inventor receives 20 years of protection. After those 20 years, the invention enters the public domain and others are free to use the technology.
Several other shoe companies, including Puma, have been working on self-lacing and have also secured patents for their technology.
— SportTechie (@SportTechie) November 1, 2016
You may be asking – – well, how can Puma put out automatic lacing if Nike already has a patent on the technology?
In order for Nike to have a case for direct patent infringement, the competitor’s device must be an exact match to Nike’s. Alternatively, infringement can also occur under the theory of the doctrine of equivalents. Under this theory, the device may not be literally identical to what is described under the original patent but can infringe if the competitor’s device does the same work in substantially the same way to accomplish the same result. This theory prevents infringers from avoiding liability for trivial changes.
So far, it does not appear that Nike has taken any legal course of action against brands with competitive auto-lacing shoes. This is likely because the competitor’s sneakers appear quite different. To better understand the intellectual property differences, let’s compare Nike’s newest auto-lacing product the HyperAdapt 1.0 with Puma’s Autodiscs.
The HyperAdapt has its motors embedded beneath the sole of the shoe. The Autodics’ motors are embedded in the tongues. The HyperAdapt has an automatic self-tightening feature. This means that as soon as you put on the shoe, a sensor triggers the self-lacing mechanism so you do not have to push a button at all to tighten the shoes.
The Autodiscs do not have this feature. However, the Autodiscs do have a distinguishable feature of smartphone connectivity. With this feature, you can set your desired tightness for each shoe on an app to ensure the same feel each time you put on the shoes. This application also monitors the battery level of the shoe’s auto-lacing motors via your phone.
As you can tell, the Puma creation is not a rip-off of Nike but rather offers different features for the consumer. As a result, Nike may have a difficult time arguing infringement unless they attempted to claim these differences were merely trivial (which would likely be a hard sell).
While competition in the marketplace is beneficial to the consumer, one cannot underestimate the importance of having a patent on this technology. This patent allows Nike to have a first mover advantage in the market, prevent others from ripping off the technology, and forces competitors to truly distinguish the product before bringing it to market.
As Puma and other competitors are just a few steps behind, for now Nike is at the cutting-edge of sneaker technology… a technology that was once only available on the big screen.