Say I use three cameramen to record a pro golfer's swing at a public event in order to subsequently digitize the path of the swing in 3-space. Say I then program a baton (like a Wii remote or a smart phone taped to a golf club) to vibrate and/or beep when the device doesn't move through space along the same path and at the same speed as the original golf swing. (In other words, the device lets you "feel" what the pro's swing is really like: as you swing, the more the device will vibrate and beep the more you deviate from the programmed swing. On the other hand, the closer you duplicate the speed and position of the original swing, the quieter the device remains, so you can try to find the preferred "groove".)

Would it be legal to sell the program and data, without any consideration going to the golfer whose swing is being duplicated?

Say the software is embedded with the necessary hardware in a golf club handle that could be attached to any club.

Say the software or device being sold didn't replicate a particular golfer, but instead let you download "path" files from servers, so that if someone posted a "Tiger Woods 5-iron" file or a "Bubba Watson 3-wood" file, you could load that "training" file into the device. Would that be like song or movie players, where the device is legal, but the file being downloaded or played might not be?

  • This sounds like a cool idea; I don't know the answer but I'll contribute this - nuances of a golfer's swing are referred to as trademarked. Barkley's trademark hitch in his backswing. Jim Furyk's trademark looping swing. Dufner's trademark waggle. And so on.
    – jqning
    Sep 17 '15 at 1:33
  • I don't have time to read this right now: ipmall.info/hosted_resources/SportsEntLaw_Institute/…
    – jqning
    Sep 17 '15 at 1:39
  • Another reference with an interesting article in fn 8. jolt.law.harvard.edu/articles/pdf/v18/18HarvJLTech401.pdf
    – jqning
    Sep 17 '15 at 1:44
  • I don't know what this is called... but let's say person A invents a black box that does X then puts that black box in the public domain. I don't think person B can then come along and receive patent protection on a green box that does X. Mar 30 '16 at 3:13
  • @jqning They can be referred to as "trademarked" but I don't think a swing style can actually be trademarked.
    – D M
    May 2 '18 at 22:09

From the patent angle, you will need to make sure that you are not infringing on a patented swing. That should be pretty easy at present because golfers are not patenting their swings. What Mowzer says about public disclosure probably has something to do with this. However, at least one golfer patented a swing:

Image from swing patent

I would be more concerned with the right of publicity of the golfers whose swings you are selling. You can't use someone's name for commercial advantage without their permission. (I will leave this thought for another day: Can analysis of a golfer's swing, without reference to their name, be appropriation of their identity if the swing is so unique?)

I am just going to rip this straight out of C.B.C. Distribution v. Major League Baseball, 443 F.Supp.2d 1077 (E.D. Mo., 2006), cleaning up some formatting and removing some citations. This is a good cite because it discusses Supreme Court jurisprudence and the New York origins of the right of publicity doctrine.

The right of publicity is recognized by statute and/or common law in many states. J. Thomas McCarthy, The Right of Publicity and Privacy § 63 (2d ed.2005). A fairly recent concept, according to the Sixth Circuit in ETW Corporation v. Jireh Publishing, Inc., 332 F.3d 915, 929 (6th Cir.2003), this right "was first recognized in Haelan Laboratories, Inc. v. Topps Chewing Gum. Inc., 202 F.2d 866 (2nd Cir.1953), where the Second Circuit held that New York's common law protected a baseball player's right in the publicity value of his photograph, and, in the process, coined the phrase `right of publicity' as the name of this right." Subsequently, in Zacchini v. Broadcasting Company, 433 U.S. 562 (1977), 433 U.S. at 573, where a performer in a "human cannonball" act sought to recover damages from a television broadcast of his entire performance, the Supreme Court recognized that the right of publicity protects the proprietary interest of an individual to "reap the reward of his endeavors."

The right of publicity is described in Section 46 of the Restatement (Third) of Unfair Competition (2005), Appropriation of the Commercial Value of a Person's Identity: The Right of Publicity. This Restatement provision states that "[o]ne who appropriates the commercial value of a person's identity by using without consent the person's name, likeness, or other indicia of identity for purposes of trade is subject to liability...." Relying on the Restatement, the Missouri Supreme Court held in TCI, 110 S.W.3d at 369, that "the elements of a right of publicity action include: (1) That defendant used plaintiff's name as a symbol of his identity (2) without consent (3) and with the intent to obtain a commercial advantage." See also Gionfriddo, 94 Cal.App.4th at 409, 114 Cal. Rptr.2d 307 ("The elements of the [tort of the right of publicity], at common law, are: '(1) the defendant's use of the plaintiff's identity; (2) the appropriation of plaintiff's name or likeness to defendant's advantage, commercially or otherwise; (3) lack of consent; and (4) resulting injury.'") To prove a violation of one's right of publicity a plaintiff must establish that the defendant commercially exploited the plaintiff's identity without the plaintiff's consent to obtain a commercial advantage. Carson v. Here's Johnny Portable Toilets, Inc., 698 F.2d 831, 835 (6th Cir.1983).


Short Answer

Patenting a golf swing might be problematic.


Apparently, the field of Sports Patents is an emerging area of the law. I will re-introduce this 2005 Harvard Law Journal piece @jqning referenced in his comment. So maybe it's too soon to say how any prospective patent on a golf swing would hold up in court? (After it makes its way through all the inevitable appeals.)

But from my point of view, patenting a golf swing might be problematic.

For example, I think that after a golfer swings in front of a few people that might qualify as a public disclosure and, therefore, make the swing public domain and, therefore, un-patentable.

Also, ... and I don't know what this is called... but let's say person A invents a black box that does X then puts that black box in the public domain. I don't think person B can then come along and receive patent protection on a green box that does X.

  • 1
    There is no reason to assume the swing is performed before being patented though. Public disclosure is easy to avoid in this case.
    – Adam
    Sep 28 '15 at 9:36
  • When the black box and the green box use different methods to achieve the same result, they would likely be independently patentable. When they are not, the second would violate the patent unless the black color is part of the patent.
    – Philipp
    Sep 28 '15 at 14:11

There was a rather remarkable case that ultimately changed what is allowed to be patented in the US. Diamond v. Chakrabarty concerned the patenting of GMOs and found that Congress intended for "anything under the sun that is made by man" to be patentable.

In the article @jqning provided in a comment, the author references this court case to tell the story of a golfer who created a very special swing after breaking his wrist. The golfer went on to patent his new swing form/technique because Diamond v. Chakrabarty essentially expanded patentability to absolutely everything involving humans.

Therefore if a golfer were to actually patent his/her swing, reselling it in any form would be restricted. However, since most golfers haven't done this, I assume it's fair game.

Public disclosure has the possibility to block the patenting of a golf swing, but who says a golfer can't create a special swing in the privacy of his/her own home? It's all too easy to get around public disclosure here.

  • No. That (home button) example doesn't follow. The public disclosure rule only applies if the disclosure is made prior to the patent filing. AFAIK. Sep 28 '15 at 9:30
  • The golf swing wouldn't be shown to the public before patenting. It's quite easy to hide a simple movement from the public.
    – Adam
    Sep 28 '15 at 9:33
  • Let's look at what you just wrote from a pragmatic point of view. Someone who never took a swing on a public golf course is going to spend tens of thousands of dollars to patent a golf swing that has no proven value? (And, statistically speaking, is not likely to be a very good one.) I think that scenario is highly unlikely. Wouldn't you agree? Sep 28 '15 at 9:37
  • This isn't about usefulness or cost. If someone wants to patent a swing, they can. And no one is restricting golfers to only using one type of swing. A golfer could technically have hundreds.
    – Adam
    Sep 28 '15 at 9:39
  • We could speculate all day about what patents might eventually one day ever happen maybe. And there would be no way to prove any of it right or wrong. I think the important points here are 1. the OP did not mention anything about patented golf swings. 2. There are a total of zero patents issued for golf swings at the present moment AFAIK. And 3. sports patents is an emerging (and therefore unsettled) area of patent law. Sep 28 '15 at 9:44

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