As the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association trade show was winding down on Friday afternoon, a prominent fitness equipment manufacturer laid out his plans for legal action against several new competitors whose wares were displayed elsewhere in the hall. He had expected the heightened competition; his business is thriving, and as the clear leader in a popular equipment category, he knew that other companies would pop up in an attempt to grab pieces of the pie that, he said pointedly, his company had baked.
Struck by his determination to knock off these purveyors of knock-offs, I recounted the conversation to an architect friend whose booth was nearby. When I mentioned that the manufacturer had called his newest competitors "parasites," my friend snorted. "If it wasn't for parasites," he said, "there wouldn't even be a fitness industry."
I have a lot of sympathy for the manufacturer in question, because there is no doubt that the true leaders in the fitness industry are those who commit huge amounts of R&D money to produce equipment that is ergonomically appropriate and safe, and easy to use and understand. The ones who come later may add a twist or two, but they haven't made the same up-front investment; they're "capitalizing" (the perfect word in this case) on other companies' hard work.
Still, my friend's remark stayed with me. Those added twists may be an attempt to deftly differentiate a product from someone else's patented design, but they may also improve the product type and the experience of end users. Product innovations can be extraordinarily subtle, and the law should both protect owners of patents and not discourage the kind of innovation that is allowing me to type this while sitting in an airplane over the Rockies.
Fortunately for the manufacturer, the courts may well side with his view - and even if they don't, if he markets himself well (and this one surely has so far) he'll always be the recognized originator of the concept. Great marketing and further innovation - more added twists - will let him keep most of the pie his company baked.