Coaches as Innovators

In the Spring 1999 issue of Coaches Report we discussed intellectual property when we wrote about the right of personality. Given that intellectual property, or ‘IP’ as it is known in marketing and legal circles, has become increasingly important as a source of revenue for sport organizations, we think it’s time to revisit the topic.

IP is a form of intangible property. It is property that is not physical or touchable. While tangible property reflects value in land, buildings, equipment, cash, and other ‘things’, intangible property reflects value in ideas and knowledge. Historically, society’s wealth has been concentrated in tangible property, but increasingly, significant wealth is now associated with intangible assets. However, non-profit organizations generally, and sport organizations specifically, have not been very sophisticated about understanding, protecting and earning revenue from their IP assets.

There are six common types of IP: copyrights, trade-marks/official marks, patents, trade secrets, personality rights and goodwill. The ideas and knowledge that are the foundation of these common IP assets originate in individuals: in the sport domain these individuals are often coaches. In their pursuit of performance improvement, coaches are inherently resourceful and clever, and such traits are at the heart of innovation. Yet we observe that few coaches recognize innovation or understand it’s potential value, and fewer still take steps to protect that value.

Examples of innovation abound in sport, from the design of the sliding seat in a rowing shell at the turn of the century, to the 1970’s invention of the waffle sole on a running shoe, to the use of computers and digital technology to provide instant feedback to athletes in 2004. The last quarter century has seen innovations like the hinged speed skate, dimple patterns to enhance the flight of golf balls, breathable yet water-repellant fabrics such as Goretex, the introduction of graphite and carbon fibre materials in sports equipment, exercises for core muscle groups such as Pilates, oversize tennis and squash racquets, air cushions in shoes, new sweat-absorbing fabrics in work-out gear and low drag fabrics in swimwear, sport drinks and other nutritional products. The National Coaching Certification Program (NCCP) is a perfect example of IP. All these innovations have improved athletic performance. They are well known because someone has converted them into commercial successes.

But there are also many examples of coach-led innovations that are less well known, but no less potentially valuable. To name just a few that we have encountered directly in recent months: a new design in the grips of sculling oars to improve stroke efficiency; a simple test to assess strength and accuracy in the throwing motion of cerebral palsy athletes; practice drills to refine offensive and defensive responses to the specific teams to be encountered at the 2004 Paralympic tournament; a practical manual to serve as a training guide for youth soccer coaches; and an athlete development model built around eight common testable elements that can be adapted to any sport.

So where does the law come into this discussion? The value of an idea is directly proportional to the extent to which the public use of that idea can be controlled or restricted. An idea that is simply floated out there for the world to see and use loses its commercial value entirely. On the other hand, an idea that is protected through legal means can be shared with the world through a variety of commercial transactions – which allows everyone to benefit from the innovation while at the same time giving extra credit (and compensation) to the innovator.

The legal protections that we’re referring to here are copyrights, trademarks and patents:

  • Copyright protects original work created by an author if that work can be described as literary, dramatic, musical or artistic, and if the work is preserved in a tangible form such as drawing, photograph, manuscript, musical score or computer code.
  • A trademark is a word, phrase, shape or design, or combination of these, that distinguishes the goods or services of one source from another.
  • A patent is a form of protection granted by the government that allows an individual to make, use and sell an invention to others.

Examples of copyrighted materials include magazine articles such as this one, web site content, technical manuals, newsletters, promotional materials, playbooks, practice drills, song lyrics, artwork and graphics. Examples of trademarks include logos, slogans, team names, event names, distinctive colours or distinctive shapes. Examples of patents are the many innovations/inventions listed earlier in this article.

Of these three types of IP protection, copyright is possibly the most significant to coaches. Copyright goes automatically to the creator of a work and remains with that creator unless transferred to someone else. The one exception to this is when the creator created the work as part of his or her employment duties, in which case the copyright usually belongs to the employer. But when the creator is not an employee, but is a contractor or a volunteer, copyright remains with the creator. For this reason, it is important for the coach to know whether or not he or she is an employee, which was the subject of several previous columns.

Patents may also be relevant to coaches, as coaches are famous for tinkering with things to make them better and to improve performance. It takes quite a lot of work to obtain a patent, but coaches should never underestimate the potential commercial value of their inventions.

Trademarks are perhaps less applicable to coaches as logos and names typically belong to a team or club. However, it is relatively simple to obtain trademark protection, and coaches may wish to do so to protect the name or logo of something that they have created, such as a coaching manual or training program.

In closing, we urge coaches to take steps to be more informed about intellectual property, and to be more protective of their ideas and innovations. Sometimes a little bit of knowledge can help a great deal. An example: it is not commonly known that trademark registration must be renewed every 15 years in Canada. University athletic departments are finding out the hard way about this, as they look at ways to capitalize on the consumer interest in retro-wear, or varsity clothing from 1970s. Surprise! The trademarks on these retro logos have long expired and others have beaten them to the market.

So, coach, the next time you have an idea and you put it into effect with good results, take a few moments to think about protecting that idea, so that you, your team or your club may benefit.

Originally published: Coaches Report (2004) Vol. 11(2)

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