Every ‘80s baby’s dreams came true when the auto-lacing Nike Mag became a real thing in 2016. This version actually tightened themselves with the push of a button, unlike the 2011 version. Marty McFly’s sneakers from Back to the Future Part II’s 1989 vision of 2015 were now available in the present. But those weren’t the only auto-lacing sneakers that Nike planned to manufacture: The brand also implemented the technology on the much more practical training sneaker, the HyperAdapt 1.0.
The Nike Mag was a fictional Hollywood sneaker prop that was unlikely to ever go into production. However, countless online petitions and pleas to produce and sell the shoe forced Nike’s hand to make auto-lace technology a reality. It took Nike Senior Innovator Tiffany Beers countless trials, but she was able to bring Tinker Hatfield’s creation to life. The end result was a self-lacing system that enables shoes to tighten automatically without human assistance and provide adaptive comfort and support. It’s a technology that’s patented solely to Nike. This is what that means to the sneaker industry.
It’s common for footwear companies to try to obtain patents for new and innovative technologies that are used in the framework of their shoes, and Nike did just that in 2011 for its “automatic lacing system.” According to the patent, the technology “provides a set of straps that can be automatically opened and closed to switch between a loosened and tightened position of the upper.”
For starters, here’s a quick primer on how patents actually work:
Patents encourage the development of new inventions and protect them from other companies replicating, marketing, and selling the same idea. Utility patents, once granted by the United States Patent and Trademark Office, provide 20 years of protection. So when a utility patent is granted -- except when a license is granted to use that -- no one besides the owner of the patent can use the invention for 20 years. Once that time expires, it goes into the public domain and anyone is free to use the invention.
But will this type of protection allow Nike to dominate the upper tier of athletic footwear for the next two decades?
Auto-lacing has the potential to become the future of shoe technology. It will give athletes an advantage if their shoes won’t come untied. For the rest of us, they would fit perfectly all day and won’t come unlaced walking down the sidewalk. They’d also benefit people with special needs, such as Michael J. Fox, who received the first pair of the Nike Mags. But does Nike’s patent actually prohibit other companies from using this technology for 20 years? The answer is not so simple.
Several companies, including Puma, Reebok, Adidas, and Timberland, also have patents for some type of auto-lacing system. Although they do have patents, it does not mean that their specific systems would be allowed by the court of law. In order for Nike to prove that any of these brands are committing patent infringement, every element contained in their patented invention must be present in the similar invention. However, if every element is not present in the similar invention, infringement can still be found if the similar invention includes a feature that is substantially similar to the patented invention. This prevents people from stealing the main benefit of the invention. To put it plain and simple: If it’s obvious that a brand is ripping off Nike, they should be able to stop the other brand from doing just that.
It’s possible that other companies can create different versions of the auto-lacing technology with one or more differences from its own system. (Puma has already done this.) However, it could be found that these companies would be stealing the main benefit of Nike’s patent: the ability to automatically lace shoes. Various lawsuits could be brought up if companies try to make sneakers that lace by themselves. If this were to happen, Nike could potentially win, which would allow it to have an enormous competitive advantage over other companies.
If all of this sounds familiar, it should. Nike created the Air system in 1987. Brands -- not ones sold at Wal Mart or Payless -- had to figure out a way to make something similar without copying Nike to keep up with the times. Puma made its Cell technology, Reebok did Hexalite, and Adidas went in another direction. It made the sneaker industry more competitive, which is what economies are all about.
Here’s why all of this matters at this point, in legal terms: Nike’s auto-lacing is the standard right now, and any other brand would have to make a technology that’s not exactly the same thing. Even if other brands reverse-engineered the auto-lacing technology, they could still get sued by Nike.
Looking to the future, it is undeniable that other shoe companies are going to attempt to use auto-lacing technology in their shoes. Competing companies will likely try to get around Nike’s patent by creating a similar technology with one or more significant differences. However, as stated, lawsuits could arise as a result of this and these lawsuits could go either way. For the time being, Nike has the upper hand when it comes to this technology and its implementation has the potential to create a paradigm shift in the shoe industry, where each company will attempt to utilize a similar system. And it’s all because Tinker Hatfield, who describes himself as a futurist, has a crazy idea almost 30 years ago.