Nike has more U.S. patents than one of the United States’ top defense contractors, a company that is in the business of making stealth jets. It has garnered more legal rights in this arena than a pharmaceutical company that is developing cancer-fighting drugs, and than an auto giant working on self-driving cars. That’s right, the Portland, Oregon-based sportswear leader, which holds the number one revenue-earning spot in the U.S. market, was granted about 500 patents last year and ended the year with a total of 5,060 issued patents if we count a number if expired ones.
According to a recent report from Investors.com, the 5,000+ number puts Nike in an ownership slot above Lockheed Martin, which has 4,113; Pfizer, which boasts 2,587 different patents; and Ford Motors with 3,563. That’s a lot of patents. Note: that figure does not even take pending patent applications into account, and there is not shortage of those, either. Many of the brand’s pending patent applications focus on new ways to manufacture products (think: 3D printing capabilities) and wearable-focused technology.
While Nike has been in and out of court for a number of intellectual property-related matters over the past several years, it has also been amassing an extensive list of patents – the exclusive legal right granted for an invention. (Or in other words, a patent is an exclusive right to a product or a process that generally provides a new way of doing something, or offers a new technical solution to a problem).
According to Nike CEO, Mark Parker, the company’s patents have nearly doubled since 2009, and as of last year, the company has the third-largest U.S. portfolio of design patents (likely behind IBM which usually takes one of the top spots). Nike has buried rivals Adidas and Under Armour in patents, as it looks to maintain its dominance with an avalanche of innovations in manufacturing and design while potentially toying with wearable devices. And if Nike’s increasing patent portfolio is anything to go by, big things are coming, as there is generally a correlation between a company seeking patent protection and its releasing innovative, game-changing products.
Interestingly, while Nike rival, adidas, has been having a strong couple of quarters in terms of revenues, the German sportswear giant is lagging in terms of its U.S. patent portfolio, which experts say is about a ninth the size of Nike’s. Compared to Nike’s more than 4,200 active patents, German rival Adidas has been relatively stagnant. However, while, internationally, adidas has a more impressive roster of protections, it still lags far behind Nike. Globally, Nike has about 19,500 patents and patent applications. Adidas has roughly 2,400.
As for Under Armour, the company that stands between the two giants in terms of revenues in the U.S. market, has just upwards of 100 U.S. patents, almost two-thirds of which are design and not utility patents. As such, the novelty in such inventions – ones covered by design patents – stems from visual appearance (the “design” of something). Utility patents, on the other hand, center more on the invention of a new and useful process, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter, or a new and useful improvement thereof.
What we can certainly tell from Nike’s patent portfolio is that the company is seriously toying with the idea of a wearable device (to rival Apple's not so earth shattering watch, perhaps?) and banking quiet heavily on 3D printing. More interestingly, though, the push for patents also sheds light on the state of the athleticwear market. While the luxe athletileisure trend has swiftly taken the fashion industry by storm, there is a lot more to it than that. “I think we are in the golden age of tech in the athletic footwear business,” said NPD Group analyst Matt Powell. “I have never seen so many new tech advances (in products and manufacturing) that we are currently seeing. So add that to the fact that there’s a record number of patents and the future looks really bright.”