Tokyo 2020: Revolutionary design or patent infringement?
What do innovators need to consider when protecting new sport technology

This year’s Olympics and Paralympics in Tokyo have been a celebration of technology as much as sport. Every aspect of the games, from 3D athlete tracking through to the construction of the stadiums, has been enhanced with cutting edge technology, none more so than the athlete’s equipment.

In a previous article, we discussed how technology and materials in particular have been used to manage the challenging Tokyo climate. In this article we look at the controversial Team GB track cycle bike and why the design has been raising questions about IP and originality. We also consider the types of IP issues innovators need to think about when developing such technologies.


The Team GB Lotus x Hope track bike

Athletic equipment is an area of constant innovation, with even minor improvements making the difference between success and failure, particularly in a sport like track cycling where a team can win by a fraction of a second. One new innovation which gained a lot of attention at this year’s games is the Team GB Lotus x Hope track bike, which has been attributed with helping the team win multiple medals.

The bike is radically different in style from traditional track bikes. It features forks and seat stays which are much farther apart than in conventional designs, giving the bike an unconventional appearance. While previous designs have focused primarily on the aerodynamic qualities of the bike rather than those of the rider, this new design takes greater account of the effects of the rider on the aerodynamics of the bike as a whole.

Shifting the forks and seat stays outwards means that they are more in line with the rider’s not-so-streamlined legs where airflow is going to be badly disrupted anyway. As a result, according to designers, drag is reduced and the overall aerodynamic performance of the bike is improved when it’s being ridden. When this is combined with 3D-printed titanium handlebars and revolutionary single-piece-mold disc wheels, the Lotus x Hope is estimated to be 2-3% faster than previous track-racing bikes, which represents a really significant improvement.

The unconventional design has drawn controversy for other reasons though, with allegations made that the design was stolen just as the Tokyo Olympics was beginning. Dutch cycling brand Kú Cycle has alleged that the wide fork design used in the Lotus x Hope was originally conceived by their co-founder in 2013 while he was working at a previous company, and has pointed to a patent application that was intended to protect this idea filed back in 2016, with a European patent being granted in March 2021.

When British Cycling filed their own patent application to try and cover the wide forks of the Lotus x Hope track bike in September 2019, the earlier patent application was cited against it for disclosing the wide-fork concept. Given that British Cycling’s application attempts to claim almost any “forks widely spaced apart from each other”, it looks as if they will have to narrow their claim in view of Kú Cycle’s earlier disclosure.

However, whether or not Kú Cycle can leverage their own IP against British Cycling is quite another matter. Kú Cycle’s granted patent which describes the wide-fork design could, potentially, provide a relatively straightforward route for them to enforce against British Cycling and get them to negotiate, without needing to prove that any ideas were stolen. However, to do this Kú Cycle will need to demonstrate that their patent covers the Lotus x Hope despite amendments that were made to the claims prior to the patent being granted.

If that cannot be done then Kú Cycle may instead need to try to prove that their idea was stolen, which is often harder to demonstrate. The suggestion from Kú Cycle is that someone they approached as a potential financial backer may have misappropriated information given to them during an investment pitch. If this allegation is to hold, Kú Cycle would most likely need to work out who this person might be and prove that they had violated an NDA or other implicit duty of confidence. Either way, unless they already have good evidence to hand, pursuing this allegation is likely to be challenging.


Protecting designs in a competitive industry

This isn’t the first time that a bicycle design has led to an IP dispute. As we reported last year, Brompton, the makers of the famous Brompton folding bicycle, has been engaged in a long running dispute with Korean company Get2Get over allegations that the rival manufacturer breached Brompton’s copyright by producing a bike of similar appearance and design. Brompton previously had a patent protecting its folding design but this expired in 1999. Get2Get subsequently launched a similar-shaped bicycle, which led to the Brompton’s allegation of copyright infringement. Despite a CJEU ruling last year that the shape of a bicycle could, potentially, be protected by copyright, the case currently remains unresolved, and underlines the value and power of a well drafted and prosecuted patent application at keeping competitors off the market.

Within track cycling, a further complicating factor is the recently instituted requirement that equipment used during competition must be on sale commercially. Previously, there may have been a temptation to rely on trade-secrets and confidential know-how to protect track-cycling innovations. It’s been the case for many years that the different teams would sneak a good look at each other’s equipment at some point during a cycling championships. However, if an innovation was hidden inside the bike, or its nature couldn’t be established just by looking at the bike, then the secret was probably safe. Now, with each team able to buy and take apart each other’s bikes, these secret innovations are unlikely to remain secret for long. In order to protect an innovation and keep competitors at bay under these new conditions, well prepared and executed patent or registered design protection is likely to be crucial.

Innovators engaged in a fast moving world such as high-end sports equipment require equally fast moving high-end IP advice to protect their investments. Please contact Carpmaels & Ransford if you would like further information or assistance with protecting such innovations.

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