The fitness equipment industry today is not just dumbbells and treadmills. Market analysts project global sales of fitness equipment to reach more than $13bn by 2022, with an annual growth rate of approximately 3.6%.1
Product and design innovation have been key for fitness equipment companies to keep pace with this growth and the increasing demands of a rising health-conscious population. Consumers continue to desire more efficient and productive machines and features that engage the user. And other technological trends, such as improved biometric monitoring, performance metrics, and interconnectivity, have influenced recent product offerings. Naturally, as companies in the fitness equipment market innovate and develop new products to meet rapidly changing fitness fads and preferences, significant efforts have been, and continue to be made to protect and enforce the related IP. To provide a glimpse of these IP efforts, we highlight trends, technologies, and issues from recent U.S. patent disputes in the fitness equipment industry, and conclude with some takeaways from this snapshot.
The major product offerings in the fitness equipment industry include aerobic or cardiovascular equipment, such as treadmills, stationary bikes, stair climbers, rowing machines, elliptical trainers, and strength training equipment, such as weightlifting machines and traditional weightlifting devices, like free weights. Generally, U.S. patent documents related to the technical subject matter of these products fall under Class A63B of the Cooperative Patent Classification (CPC). Class A63B covers technologies for physical training, gymnastics, swimming, climbing, or fencing, training equipment, and ball games and includes various subclasses specifically directed to fitness equipment. Data relating to CPC Class A63B indicates that close to 400 US patent disputes involving fitness equipment technology have been initiated since 2013.2 These disputes have been filed in U.S. district courts, the Patent Trial and Appeal Board at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, and the U.S. International Trade Commission. Notably, the industry has experienced a recent spike in case filings within the past three years.
Not surprisingly, the underlying technologies for many of these disputes mirror the product features and fads that have been driving consumer demand in the fitness equipment industry. As shown below, one of the top technology subclasses for the U.S. patents subject to these disputes is directed to electronically controlling or monitoring exercises, training, or athletic performances (Subclass A63B 24 – Electric or electronic controls for exercising apparatus).3 This subclass includes patents directed to the interconnectivity of exercise equipment. For example, U.S. patent infringement disputes have been initiated involving exercise machines, such as treadmills, stationary bicycles, and elliptical trainers, with interconnectivity and interactive capabilities.4
Much litigation has also focused on strength and cardiovascular training technologies (Subclasses A63B 21/00 and 22/00). See table 1. For example, these U.S patent disputes relate to traditional exercise equipment, such as weightlifting machines, exercise bikes, and elliptical trainers,5 as well as trendier products, such as Pilates exercise machines, incline trainers, and natural stride cardiovascular trainers.6
Table 1: Number of Cases by Cooperative Patent Classification
Chart 1: Number of Patents for Top 20 CompaniesThe fitness equipment industry comprises approximately 100 companies, some of the major players being Cybex International and Life Fitness (both owned by Brunswick Corp), ICON Health & Fitness, Nautilus, Peloton Interactive, Precor (owned by Amer Sports Oyj), Dyaco International, Technogym SpA, and Johnson Health Tech Co. Data indicates that, among these major players, ICON has filed the most U.S. patent disputes in the past five years, and thus, has been the industry player most actively enforcing its IP rights.7 Further, the data in the chart below shows that, among the major industry players, ICON has the largest US patent portfolio related to fitness equipment technology.8 This may indicate that ICON is also the most active industry player in pursuing IP protection. See chart 1.
The major industry players, however, have not been the most litigious in terms of recent U.S. patent disputes. Instead, non-practising entities account for the highest volume of recently-filed U.S. patent cases (well over half of all cases) involving the fitness equipment industry.9 See chart 2. The majority of these cases also target the interconnectivity trend that has been influencing demand and growth in the fitness equipment industry.
Chart 2: Number of U.S. Court Cases for Top 20 Plaintiffs
This snapshot of the fitness equipment industry provides a number of IP takeaways to consider as equipment companies continue to feed the rising demand and market growth. Product innovation and differentiation are crucial in the fitness equipment industry to address rapidly shifting fitness trends and consumer boredom with exercise. Protecting these innovations appears to be more and more crucial, because a given exercise technology may experience significant success based on the popularity of a current exercise preference, especially in view of the rapidly growing health-conscious population. The recent popularity of connected exercise devices provides an intriguing example. Equipment manufactures may utilise their IP for offensive purposes, such as enforcing patents against alleged infringers, and for defensive purposes, such as countersuing for patent infringement or gaining leverage in an existing dispute. The trend of U.S. patent application filings related to fitness equipment technology (an average of more than 1,000 each of the past eight years) shows the significance of IP protection to the industry.10
This trend highlights the value of a freedom-to-operate analysis. With the growing number of U.S. patent disputes in the fitness equipment industry, identifying and navigating potential IP infringement risks in advance is imperative when developing and producing new fitness equipment products. Doing so reveals the level of risk and potential adversaries to assist with business and legal making decisions associated with the new products. Fitness equipment companies should also assess the potential for any non-traditional adversaries, eg, non-practising entities, in this analysis. As the recent data has shown, U.S. patent disputes initiated by non-practising entities significantly outnumber disputes between industry competitors. Depending on the circumstances and analysis, including the litigation habits of relevant non-traditional adversaries, companies should assess potential strategies for engaging these adversaries, including, for example, more aggressive tactics such as post-grant challenges at the patent office.11
IP due diligence and freedom-to-operate analyses should also be considered for other relevant contexts in the fitness equipment industry. Fitness equipment companies often acquire other companies to expand their market and product lines. An example of this is Brunswick, the parent company of Life Fitness, acquiring Cybex International to add to its fitness equipment line. For such deals, fitness equipment companies should analyse various IP issues to assist with the business and legal decision making process, such as the IP infringement risks of the acquired products and the value of any IP that may be secured with the purchase.
Current forecasts project healthy growth for the fitness equipment industry. This growth may be attributed to the development of innovative products to quench consumer demand for new fitness fads and rising health awareness. And as fitness equipment companies continue to innovate and produce new products, recent trends in the industry illustrate the importance of protecting their IP and guarding against other IP threats.