Nike and Lululemon Embroiled in Fitness Tech Patent Battle
Mention of fitness industry giants Nike and Lululemon brings to mind images of their iconic emblems dotting leggings and sweeping across the season’s hottest sneakers. Since their humble beginnings, these apparel companies have long since expanded beyond clothing and into other lucrative aspects of exercise and wellness.
When the COVID-19 pandemic saw the shuttering of gyms and people pent up at home, firms were quick to capitalise. In a US$ 500 million (approximately GBP 369 million) deal back in 2020, Lululemon purchased fitness-tech start-up Mirror. Their website describes the product:
“When it’s off, it’s a mirror. When it’s on, it’s the world’s first interactive smart gym with you at the center.”
Lululemon integrated Mirror into their wellness ecosystem, selling it with branded yoga mats and offering trials in their retail locations but they did nothing to alter the Mirror product itself which was launched in 2018.
Now, two years since the acquisition and four since the product came to market, Nike has brought forth a lawsuit concerning the at-home workout tech. In a Manhattan United States District Court, Nike filed a complaint citing that Lululemon’s distribution and sale of Mirror, and its accompanying app, violates multiple of their long-held patents. These include a patent Nike filed in 1983 for a “device for determining a runner’s speed, distance traversed, elapsed time and calories expended”. The patents in question cover ways for athletes to compete against others in a digital community as well as technology that can determine an athlete’s calorie output, speed and repetitions. Nike established their long-standing history with this technology, having employed it in Nike+ Kinect for Xbox and the Nike Run Club mobile app.
Lululemon stood firm as they responded in a statement, saying that while the company “respects intellectual property”, it “does not believe that Nike’s patents are relevant” to Mirror. Nevertheless, Nike pushes forward with the lawsuit, seeking monetary damages. Nike did not take legal action against Mirror when it was first brought to market nor have they taken any action against similar products such as VAHA or the Tempo Studio. If Mirror is in violation of patents as Nike claims then it is hard to picture a world where these other products would not also do so. Legal fees can add up and Nike is investing in a hit against Lululemon to push back against their expansion into the fitness industry.
Major players like Nike and Lululemon are increasingly relying on the courts to protect their intellectual property as more competitors enter the space and existing competitors expand their offerings. Stringent intellectual property rights enforcement rewards industry innovation and helps companies maintain their competitive advantages. However, there seems to be a selective application of this process as Nike had no problem with Mirror until Lululemon acquired it and they have taken no action against similar products which utilise comparable technologies.
Rather than a universal application of intellectual property law, Nike and other similar companies use the courts, and their wide arsenal of patents, to deter their most eminent competitors. If the courts rule that Lululemon’s Mirror is in violation of Nike’s patents then it seems that a myriad of other products would be too.
This is far from the only recent patent lawsuit in the crowded fitness industry as Lululemon saw itself embroiled in a legal battle against Peloton in November of 2021. This came in response to Peloton’s foray into the athletic wear sector after previously selling branded Nike and Lululemon apparel. It is clear that as major fitness brands expand into multi-sector empires, fierce competition drives companies to seek legal protection of their value proposition.
While the pandemic-induced boom in at-home fitness has led to an increase in patent lawsuits among major retailers, the future of this fervor remains unclear. The reopening of brick and mortar gyms has prompted firms to decrease profit projections for the coming quarter of specific, at-home exercise tech. We will have to keep watch to see if this drop in demand drives desperate intellectual property defense or leads to a decrease in lawsuits.