A big legal battle is shaping up over small plastic golf shoe cleats, with the company that pioneered them accusing one of its chief rivals of stealing its design.
Softspikes Inc., a Rockville, Md., firm that first marketed the golf-green-friendly plastic cleats, says in a patent infringement suit filed Feb. 28 in the United Kingdom that the design of its chief rival, Trisport Ltd., is so similar it violates patent law.
More such suits could be coming because ``there is no question that the other manufacturers of the plastic cleat category are infringing,'' said Softspikes Chief Executive Officer Jon Hyman. The company is reviewing ``similar'' designs from the other big player in the market, MacNeill Engineering Worldwide Inc. of Marlborough, Mass., and has taken aggressive action to stop a number of smaller companies, he said.
Softspikes would not release a copy of the Trisport suit, which was filed in patent court in the United Kingdom, but Hyman said the material issue is that the arched ridges used for traction are so similar that ``a third-grader could figure it out.''
Tamworth, England-based Trisport said in a statement that it has been aware of Softspikes' British patent ``for a considerable length of time'' and plans to vigorously pursue the revocation of the patent.
``Trisport will not allow a competitor to restrict Trisport's legitimate use of its own products and will take all action necessary to protect its advantage in the market,'' said Chairman David Collins.
Trisport has not been served with the lawsuit, the company said in a March 3 statement. Trisport makes Turf-Mate and Turf-Mate Plus plastic cleats for Foot-Joy Inc.
This suit could be crucial to Softspike's future, according to a distributor who handles products from all three companies and who spoke anonymously: ``The product itself is pretty cheap to make. If they can't protect their patent, others will make it cheaper because Softspike has been spending a lot on marketing.''
Softspike generally dominates the national plastic cleat market but other products could be stronger regionally, the distributor said. Distributors said they did not know how much of the plastic cleat market Softspike holds nationally, but the company claims it has 25 percent of the metal and plastic market combined. Softspike does not make metal spikes, unlike both of its chief rivals.
Softspike said Trisport's entry into the plastic cleat business did not reduce its cleat sales in 1996 because its production was limited by tooling. But the company will have 250 percent of its 1996 production capacity this year, he said.
The suit was filed in the United Kingdom because the company's patent has been granted there and still is pending in the United States, Hyman said. If successful, it would bar Trisport from manufacturing and selling in the United Kingdom, but would have no effect in the United States, Hyman said. All of Trisport's plastic cleat manufacturing is in the United Kingdom, a Trisport spokeswoman said.
The suit does not ask for specific damages, he said.
Plastic cleats have been making a strong challenge to metal spikes in recent years. About 1,400 U.S. golf courses now ban metal spikes, Hyman said.