Imagine If Intellectual Property Applied to Football

Intellectual Property in Football
Football is an intensely competitive and dynamic game.  Every season brings changes in offensive and
defensive formations and plays.  Occasionally a young upstart coach at a junior college will come up with a new scheme that, in as little as a couple of seasons, will completely revolutionize the game.  The evolution of the sport is made possible by the rampant copying of one's competitors.  This is what makes the game so much fun to follow.  What works like magic this week may not work at all next week, once one's opponents have watched the game film.  What passes for offensive genius this season may next season be widely exposed for its fundamental weakness.

Imagine for a moment if plays and formations could be patented.  What effect would that have on the game?  An offensive coordinator would come up with a new play, document the design in an overly verbose and incomprehensible document, and wait for the NFL Patent Office to release their verdict.  Finally, 3 seasons later, the coach can incorporate his new play into the offense, or he could try to license or sell the rights to the play to another team.  Perhaps it just does not work with his current crop of players.  Once a defense sees the new play in action, they will have to scour their portfolio for a countermeasure that they think will work in defending it.  If nothing is found, they may have to resort to purchasing the rights to one.  The could of course take the time to invent their own play and check it against current patents issued, lest they land themselves in court for trespassing on the intellectual space of some coach who came up with a too similar blitz 12 seasons earlier.

It is difficult to project exactly how a football patent process would effect the game, but I submit without equivocation that it would put a major damper on that element which makes the game so much fun, innovation.  This is because the incentive of the game would be bastardized.  Instead of just doing whatever it takes to reach the goal line without holding, clipping and the like, the coaching staff must now do so while avoiding the patent courts.   The focus would be shifted from coming up with new plays to protecting the plays already in the team's portfolio.

Is this a perfect analogy to intellectual property to be applied outside the realm of sports?  Probably not.  But I hope what is clear by now is that the absence of legal protection of ideas does not present a disincentive to innovate as is so often leveled in defense of intellectual property.  Being the first to the field or to the market with a new plan, or even an improved implementation of an old plan, is all the incentive that is needed, in life or in sport, to be inventive.  The takeaway that is just as important is that, in the absence of legal protection from copying, one must not rest on one's laurels but must - gasp - keep innovating to keep moving the ball forward.
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