Fashion generally lacks adequate protection from Intellectual Property Law. I have recently discussed a number of IP tools designers may use for some level of protection but have yet to consider patents.

Patents apply to newly developed technologies and provide the inventor the exclusive right to use, make, or sell the innovation for a fixed period of time. They also imbue a product with a sense of uniqueness and novelty. In the fashion world people like Alexander Wang have patented things like the bag with corners, to gain the exclusive right to the metal protection around the bottom and sides of his bags.

The problem with patents in fashion is a patent protects the very specific way something functions. Wang does not have the exclusive right to all bags with metal corners, but only his exact patented ones. As soon as another designer alters these metal corners – makes them bigger, rounder, thicker –  they are likely no longer covered by Wang’s patent. So, despite the patent, there may be legal look-a-likes to Wang’s original design. And in the world of fashion, where you may be paying for the look and not the function, patents sometimes provide little protection against unauthorized reproductions.

But what if you were paying for the function and not for the look?

Patents can protect fashion products when the value is not only aesthetic but also the technology behind the design. For example, Nike’s sneaker business is about shoes that make you perform better: air bubbles that allow you to jump higher, shocks that allow you to run longer, and now shoe soles that will help  you run faster. You buy Nike runners for the swoosh, the look, and also the function. So it is really no surprise then that Nike has more patents than most aerospace companies, technology development institutes, or car manufacturers.

Recently, Nike released the Nike Zoom Vaporfly Elite 4% as part of their Breaking2 project and is an attempted to make a shoe that could help to break the world marathon record, clocking a sub-two-hour time. And although the Nike Breaking2 runners have yet to break the 2-hour mark, coming in close at 2:00:25 (shaving almost 3 minutes off the record in one race), they have set a new standard for innovative technology in runners.

And this technology is legally protected by patents.

The innovative design of a curved carbon-fiber plated shoe with a spring plate was patented by Nike back in May 2016. This patent gives Nike some time to publicly play around with the race conditions and runners to shave that last 25 seconds off the world record without fear of their technology being copied.

Although Adidas has created its own version, the Adizero Sub2, this shoe cannot have the same patented sole that might give the Nike Breaking2 project the edge. As technology becomes more and more  integrated within the world of fashion, others might also be able to make use of patents as a means of both protecting the uniqueness of their products and giving them a competitive edge.