US3042405, US5042806 and US5259129 may sound like just a random jumble of numbers or perhaps the storage number where the Zapruder files are stashed in Washington, D.C.
They’re actually the patent numbers of three of the most significant design steps in golf over the last 60 years: Karsten Solheim’s heel-and-toe balanced golf putter in 1959 that became the PING Anser; metal wood with neckless head by Dick Helmstetter in 1989 that became the Callaway Big Bertha driver; and plastic golf cleat by Faris McMullin and Ernie Deacon in 1992 that became Softspikes.
Patents are perhaps the most important legal instruments for protecting intellectual property rights. A patent confers to an inventor the sole right to exclude others from economically exploiting the innovation for a limited time (20 years from the date of filing for a utility patent, 15 years from the date of issuance for a design patent, which covers the ornamental aspect of a product). When it comes to product innovation, no sport outpaces golf, and protecting intellectual property (IP) is crucial for the industry.
Since 1976, there have been more than 22,000 patents connected to golf, according to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s website. Among major sports, golf’s closest competitor in the patent field is baseball with 1,508.
In fact, golf has more than twice as many patents over the past four decades than all those for baseball, football, basketball, hockey, tennis, swimming, bowling, soccer, lacrosse and skiing combined.
As anyone who has attended the industry’s annual PGA Merchandise Show can attest, it speaks volumes not only about the innovation, but the entrepreneurial spirit and passion – perhaps sometimes misguided — that surrounds golf.
“You have an industry in golf with so many avid players and tinkerers. Everyone thinks they’ve come up with a major breakthrough and they’re going to make a million bucks,” said Luis Pedraza, the founder of the Axis 1 torque-free putter. Pedraza’s creation features a center of gravity on the center of the putter face that’s perfectly aligned with the axis of the shaft.
Pedraza entered the golf business in 2006, and possesses more than 20 utility patents in the U.S., China, Japan, South Korea and the European Union. Patents, he said, can be very expensive. It’s not just filing and getting the patent, but the maintenance of that patent that can add up.
“If you think you’re going to get into the golf industry and not spend a lot of money or need to spend a lot of money on the intellectual property side, you should not be starting a business,” said David Dawsey, a golf patent lawyer that covers his specialty on his Golf-Patents blog, an online golf resource dedicated to the intellectual property issues of the golf industry including inventions, patents, trademarks and litigation.
Pedraza hasn’t had to defend his patents in court, but he does believe they have prevented larger manufacturers from copying his idea. He suggested that being granted a patent doesn’t necessarily mean that a business concept is viable. He suggested that applying for a provisional patent that grants a one-year window for an idea could be just as useful in allowing an inventor to talk to a company to see if it is interested in an idea.
“They may even pick up the cost of the patent filings themselves,” Pedraza said. “Too many people cling to the patent and assume they will pay off in the end.”
Golf is a technology industry that needs strong IP protections. In 2017, over 750 U.S. utility patents were issued that are generally related to golf, and over 450 U.S. utility patents were issued specifically directed to golf clubs.
The research & development departments at the Big 5 golf equipment companies — Acushnet, Callaway, Cobra-Puma, PING and TaylorMade — are responsible for the majority of golf patents. In accordance with U.S Patent Statute 35 U.S.C. Section 287(a), the major equipment makers provide notice to the public that their products are patented.
On its web site, Callaway Golf declares that its patent portfolio of more than 1,200 U.S. patents is one of the largest in golf. “All part of our commitment to protect the innovations that set us apart in the golf industry,” Callaway says.
On Titleist.com, golf ball manufacturer Acushnet cites 46 patents for both the 2017 Pro V1 and new AVX, and 68 for the Pro V1x.
Last year, over 150 U.S. utility patents were issued specifically directed to golf balls; Acushnet led the way with 62.
“Every patent can be designed around,” said Dawsey, who has helped clients get more than 100 patents for their inventions. “It’s just a matter of how inconvenient the changes are for a company to design around that patent, and whether it reduces performance and increases costs. And doing the design-around may very well take you square into another scope of another patent.”
The thousands of patents on golf-related inventions are testament to that.
Not long ago, Bob Parsons, who is best known for his success with Internet domain provider GoDaddy.com, was asked if his golf equipment start-up PXG would ever enter the golf-ball business. In 2016, Parsons and PXG designer Brad Schweigert were listed as the inventors on a patent for a golf ball granted to a company called Slick Golf.
“My life is complicated enough without being in the golf ball business,” Parsons said.
Those complications include a legal tussle with TaylorMade filed in September 2017 for what PXG perceived as infringement of patents on its irons. TaylorMade filed a countersuit and the dispute is ongoing.
In 2010, a federal jury found that Acushnet didn’t infringe on four golf ball patents asserted by Callaway. More recently, Acushnet was at odds with wholesale shopping club Costco about whether the retailer’s Kirkland-branded golf ball violated 11 of Acushnet’s patents.
Traditional threats to intellectual property in the golf industry come from fake equipment sold overseas or over the Internet. While major manufacturers generally honor a competitor’s patents and trademarks, that isn’t always the case for Asian and online counterfeiters.
“It’s like whack-a-mole,” Joseph Nauman, the former executive vice president of Acushnet, told Vanguard Law Magazine. “We’ve done a lot to keep it in check. We haven’t stopped it, but we’ve put a damper on it. Fewer folks seem to be doing it; maybe we’re taking them out of play, or maybe they’re just better at hiding it.”
While a patent doesn’t promise success, its protection of innovation in the golf industry continues to prove vital.
And no other sport even comes close.