In 2012, Nike unveiled a new type of running shoe. More like a sock with a sole, its Flyknit Racer is constructed by weaving a single, pliable layer of polyester yarn into a form-fitting mesh that hugs the foot. The goal is a unique fit for each wearer, a lighter sneaker and less material waste from production. Time named it one of its best inventions of the year.
A few months later, Adidas released its adiZero Primeknit. The German apparel giant described the sneaker as its “first one-piece upper performance running shoe featuring a new seamless engineering technology.” Nike was not impressed and soon filed suit for patent infringement. German courts sided with Adidas, which used the defense that the yarn-weaving style used in both shoes dated back to the 1940s. Nike has pledged to “aggressively protect” its intellectual property rights, so this may not be over. Either way, it serves as yet another reminder of how contentious the race to the top can be in the sneaker industry.
Sneaker Giants Born in the City of Brotherly Hate (1949)
No sneaker war has been more belligerent than the one that spawned Adidas and Puma. The founders of the two companies, Adolph (Adi) and Rudolf Dassler, were brothers in the Bavarian town of Herzogenaurach who began making shoes together in their basement. But a world-class falling out forced them to part ways.
The discord reportedly ran deep, but the final straw, so goes the legend, came in a bomb shelter during World War II. Adi and his wife were hunkered down to withstand an Allied attack when Rudi and his family showed up. “The dirty bastards are back,” said Adi, referring to the enemy bombers. But Rudi and his wife took it to mean them.
Post-war lore includes claims that one brother reported the other as a Nazi to the Allies (though both were registered members of the Nazi party), and it was soon clear that the rift would never be repaired. They soon formed their own companies—Rudolf’s Puma registered in 1948 and Adi’s Adidas in 1949—but each remained in Herzogenaurach, which became the “town of the bent necks.” All the residents were reportedly so embroiled in the sibling rivalry that the first thing townspeople would do when meeting someone new was look down at his feet to see which brother he supported.
Reebok Is Here to Pump You Up — And Sue You (1992)
In the early 1980s, Nike changed the market for basketball sneakers with its “Nike Air” technology, which put an air-cushioned pocket in the shoe’s heel. Years later, Reebok took the world’s fascination with air to the next level, introducing the Reebok Pump. Rather than adding underfoot cushioning, the Pump had an air bladder in the tongue that wearers could inflate to provide an optimal fit around the forefoot and ankle. The pumping mechanism was branded ingeniously with a basketball (or tennis ball) on the tongue, and its appeal peaked in 1991 after Dee Brown stopped to pump up his shoes before winning the NBA dunk contest.
In the first three years, Reebok reportedly sold more than 12 million pairs of Pumps, and the copycats followed. Reebok soon filed for a patent and sued L.A. Gear, whose sneaker air-chamber technology was called “The Regulator,” and Spalding, which sold an inflatable baseball glove. L.A. Gear paid Reebok $1 million for patent infringement and additional licensing fees tied to future sales as terms of a settlement. Spalding also settled out of court for an undisclosed sum.
Three Stripes, Dozens of Lawsuits (2008)
Everybody wants to be like Adidas. Or, more accurately, everybody wants to dupe sneaker buyers into thinking they are purchasing Adidas shoes. Some use four stripes, some use two, and others just blatantly rip off the German apparel company’s signature three stripes, but in the decade following 1999, Adidas felt compelled to sue some three dozen companies for infringing on its trademark design.
In 2008, Adidas won a $301 million verdict against Payless for selling knockoffs (though it was later reduced to $60.4 million). Two days later, Sears settled a suit with a similar claim. Wal-Mart, Steve Madden and Aldo have also agreed to settlements alleging misuse of the three stripes for undisclosed amounts in recent years.
Sketchy Fitness Claims Cost Millions (2012)
In 2011, Skechers sued Sears, claiming that several brands of “toning” sneakers it sold in its retail stores infringed on the patents of Shape-ups, a Skechers’ sneaker line that claimed to help wearers firm muscles and burn calories. According to the company, it could not let Sears “infringe on our most valuable intellectual property.” The case would become secondary, however, when the Federal Trade Commission countered that no one who wore the sneakers ever received the promised benefits anyway.
A little over a year later, Skechers, which marketed its Shape-ups with high-profile campaigns featuring reality television star Kim Kardashian and Hall of Fame quarterback Joe Montana, paid $40 million to settle a lawsuit filed by the FTC alleging that the company’s fitness claims were bogus. Reebook also paid $25 million to settle a similar FTC case involving “unsupported” ad claims that its EasyTone sneakers helped strengthen thigh and butt muscles. Both settlements allowed purchasers to file refund claims with the companies.