Copyright and Football: A Guest Post

DESCRIPTIONSuzy Allman for The New York Times

Kal Raustiala, a professor at UCLA Law School and the UCLA International Institute, and Chris Sprigman, a professor at the University of Virginia Law School, are experts in counterfeiting and intellectual property. They have been guest-blogging for us about copyright issues. Today, they write about copyrighting and football.

Innovation and the I-Bone: What Football Can Teach Us About Creativity
By Kal Raustiala and Chris Sprigman

The theory behind copyright is simple – if we allow anyone to copy a good new idea, then no one will come up with the next one.? The theory makes perfect sense – in theory.? In previous posts, however, we have described how fashion designers, chefs, comedians and pornographers all continue to create, even though others are free to copy their fashion designs, recipes, jokes, and . . . images.? In this post, we’ll take a look at something different: football.

You may not think of football as a creative industry, but it’s actually the most consistently creative sport.? Once football embraced the forward pass, plays and formations changed rapidly. The result has been a continuous wave of innovation.? Should football plays be protected against copying? And what can we learn from the fact that copying hasn’t slowed down innovation on the gridiron?

First, a little history. When football started, it was a running game, an endless loop of three yards and a cloud of dust.? But in the 1905 college season, 18 players were killed and more than 150 badly injured.? After viewing a photo of a mutilated player, President Theodore Roosevelt demanded changes in the sport.? The result was the forward pass, which was thought to be less dangerous to players than the run.

Some doubted that the forward pass would ever count for much.? The New York Times opined that “There has been no team that has proved that the forward pass is anything but a doubtful, dangerous play to be used only in the last extremity.”

Yet passing changed football – size mattered less, speed and smarts much more – and added a range of previously unimaginable complexities to the offense.? Here are some recent examples of innovation on the field:

  • Bill Walsh and the West Coast Offense. The West Coast Offense, which relied on quick, short passes, was the brainchild of Bill Walsh, who formulated it when offensive coordinator for the Cincinnati Bengals. As Walsh described his approach:

    “[The Bengals were] an expansion franchise that just didn’t have near the talent to compete. That was probably the worst-stocked franchise in the history of the NFL. So in putting the team together, I personally was trying to find a way we could compete…We couldn’t control the football with the run; teams were just too strong. So it had to be the forward pass, and obviously it had to be a high-percentage, short, controlled passing game. So through a series of formation-changing and timed passes-using all eligible receivers, especially the fullback-we were able to put together an offense and develop it over a period of time…The old-line NFL people called it a nickel-and-dime offense. They, in a sense, had disregard and contempt for it, but whenever they played us, they had to deal with it.”

  • Dick LeBeau and the Zone Blitz. The West Coast Offense quickly spread around the NFL.? Defenses had to adapt–quickly.? One adaptation was Dick LeBeau’s Zone Blitz, first developed for the Cincinnati Bengals.? LeBeau’s aim was to disrupt the West Coast Offense by increasing pressure on the quarterback.? He did this by using a shallow zone defense, rather than the man-to-man coverage of receivers that had previously been the norm, and then sending a fast defensive back after the quarterback.? The problem for the offense was picking up where the blitz was coming from.? The result was a potent counterstrategy to the West Coast attack.
  • Sam Wyche and the No-Huddle Offense. In 1989, Sam Wyche, then coach of the Bengals (the Bengals again!) had the seemingly crazy idea of employing a “hurry-up” offense, typically used in a game’s waning minutes, during the entire game.? The offense became known as the “No Huddle.” Wyche’s smaller and better-conditioned Bengals offense ran a very quick series of pre-scripted plays without huddles, all with the objective of confusing and tiring larger, less mobile defenders.? The strategy worked brilliantly and provoked anger among opposing coaches. In the days leading up to a playoff game against the Buffalo Bills, Bills coach Marv Levy angrily asserted that Wyche’s approach was equivalent to cheating.? And during the game, members of the Bills defense repeatedly feigned injury in order to stop the Bengals from rushing to the line of scrimmage.? But the anger soon gave way to imitation.? The following season, Levy’s Bills ran the no-huddle offense and went on to play in four straight Super Bowls.
  • Mike Leach and the Spread Offense. Until he lost his job in a recent scandal involving mistreatment of an injured player, Mike Leach’s Texas Tech Red Raiders ran perhaps the most consistently innovative offense in college football.? Leach’s principal innovation was the spread – an offensive system that throws on almost every down, that uses every eligible receiver, and that implements a limited number of plays run out of a variety of formations in which the offensive linemen spread out across the field.? The result is a defense that is both confused (so many receivers!) and tired. Leach’s teams, long treated as also-rans in a conference dominated by powerhouses like Texas, Oklahoma, and Texas A&M, won a disproportionate number of games despite their inability to compete with better-known rivals for the most talented players.

The initial reaction to Leach’s spread offense, as ever, was contempt.? The second reaction, just as inevitably, was appropriation.? Teams on both the college and pro levels adopted various forms of the spread – Rich Rodriguez developed a “spread-option” offense at West Virginia and Michigan, and in 2007, the New England Patriots used the spread and compiled a perfect 16-0 season.

So what does this all mean?? There has been a lot of innovation in football, in both offensive and defensive systems.? But there has been virtually no attempt to copyright or patent these innovations.? There are some serious doctrinal hurdles, but it’s not impossible to imagine the law providing protection.

Indeed, in the 1980s, James R. Smith applied for a copyright on his “I-bone” offensive formation (he claimed that the formation was equivalent to choreography and therefore copyrightable).? We can find no record showing that the U.S. Copyright Office granted registration (although they did grant a copyright to a book describing the I-bone).? Patent protection extends to new and useful “systems,” and a well-developed football offense might be characterized this way.? It might also be characterized as a “method of doing business” – a category of inventions which are also patentable (with some restrictions) under U.S. law.? So intellectual property law might conceivably step in, but it never has.

So why do football coaches continue to innovate, even when they know that their rivals will study their innovations, take them and use them?? That is, why do football coaches engage in intellectual production without intellectual property?

First, the stories of football innovation often involve coaches that are struggling to find a way to win with players of inferior talent.? Effective innovation may be the only way to level the playing field, at least temporarily.

Second, football coaches are incredibly short-term thinkers.? The rewards of winning are immense – one Super Bowl victory makes a career – and this means that they are focused on winning now, and less deterred by the prospect of losing their edge over the long term.? An innovation that gives any advantage – even a temporary one – is worth exploring.

Third, even though there are no protections against copying in the long term, there are practical barriers that prevent immediate copying and ensure a short period during which the innovator can’t be imitated.? Innovative plays and formations can be copied relatively quickly. What’s far less quick is the process of rebuilding a team to take advantage of the innovation.? Employing any complex formation requires players to be retrained.? Often, it requires a different type of player too – the spread offense favors smaller, speedier offensive players and places less emphasis on enormous offensive linemen.

Economists refer to this as first-mover advantage – the period of de facto exclusivity that innovators often enjoy due to the practical difficulties of copying.? If the first-mover advantage is substantial enough, it might be a sufficient incentive to engage in innovation, even without patent or copyright.? In football, where winning now is the priority, first mover advantage can mean a lot.

Finally, the story of innovation in football is tied to a much deeper debate in the economics of innovation.? Economists today disagree about the conditions most conducive to innovation.? Some, following the ideas of Joseph Schumpeter, maintain that innovation requires shelter from competition – the firm in a competitive market is hard-pressed to focus on anything but the short-term, and because profits are limited by competition, may lack the resources to innovate.? Other scholars, following the lead of Nobel laureate Kenneth Arrow, argue that innovation is best fostered by sharp competition – firms struggling for any advantage over their rivals are forced to innovate or die.? This divergence in views has hardened into a Schumpeterian vs. Arrovian standoff – and the state of the evidence does not allow us to fully understand yet which view is right.

Intellectual property law, however, is essentially Schumpeterian. The theory of patent and copyright is that by sheltering innovators from competition – that is, by prohibiting copying of the innovation – we encourage innovation.? But perhaps the Arrovians are right.? Football, for example, illustrates innovation occurring in the midst of cut-throat competition.? And football doesn’t stand alone.? Some of the other creative industries we’ve described, such as fashion and food, look like Arrovian innovators as well.

The lesson here, in our view, is that innovation can thrive under a wide variety of conditions – from cutthroat competition all the way to very strong IP – depending on the particular logic of innovation in an industry.? Football and pharmaceuticals are as different as music is from poetry, or computer software from architecture, or academic research from motion pictures.? All of these are creative endeavors, all of them involve innovation, but the ways in which these creators innovate, and the legal rules that best fit innovation in these fields, are all very different. Our copyright and patent laws treat all the industries they reach virtually the same.? Yet all innovation cultures are different.

Calvin Graham

The difference is that for comedians, musicians, you're paying for the delivery which is for the most part not something that's copyable. I know a lot of people who can deliver a good rendition of Hotel California on a guitar but I'd still pay through the nose to see it performed live.


Three points of confusion/questions:
1. I don't is a business, but not a traditional one...the teams all work for the same company, the NFL (although colleges are separate). Are there any examples in other lines of business of franchises/divisions within a company holding patents relevant only to members of the same company?
2. It does not seem like real 'innovation' in the sense of creating anything, more like 'exploring' the rulebook and the boundaries defined by that arbitrary document.
3. There are many aspects of football that are outside of the law-otherwise every tackle could be construed as assault, for example. Can you bring in only certain aspects of law without others?


No mention of the most recent craze, Houston Nutt's oft imitated "Wild Hog" formation?


I beg to differ. I'm a comedian and no, comedians are NOT free to copy each others jokes. Jokes are protected by copyright laws just like any other specific compilation of words. If I write a joke and you tell my joke on stage I could have an action against you. A possible defense would be what's known as parallel development- that you didn't steal my joke but based on the same set of circumstances you wrote your own joke. And that does happen quite often- witness a zillion amateur comics telling the same four hour erection joke, or several talk show hosts telling essentially the same joke based on current events- that once the BP oil well was capped the biggest spiller of crude was Mel Gibson (I know, I wrote one of them).

But most comedians' jokes are more specific and less obvious, and if you go on stage telling my joke there may be repercussions. And that's one reason why comedians are coached to do material that's more personal- if my joke's about qualities and experiences specific to me it's a lot harder for you to make it yours.

People may steal, but that doesn't make it legal, whether it's a car, a book or a joke. And when comedians can't get no respect even from intellectual property law professors, well, we do have a problem but it's not with ourselves.

Shaun Eli Breidbart



Plus the imitation may only be superficial. I remember how the Wildcat formation was all the rage, and credited to the Miami Dolphin's turnaround when looking deeper it was more that they went from one of the most injured teams in the league to one of the least injured.

Paul Johnson has also shown through his implementation of the triple option back at Georgia Tech that following the crowd may not always be in the best interests of the team.


An additional question: why is it that innovations like the use of statistics to determine when to punt have never really been adopted by anyone, while innovations in play design have been adopted over the years?

I suspect the incentives are somewhat different for the two types of innovation: new formations are a socially accepted way for a coach to innovate. While a coach may be criticized for trying a new play or formation that doesn't work, in general people seem to be pretty open to creative plays. On the other hand, unorthodox decisions in 4th down situations, if they go wrong, are considered unforgivable mistakes: remember last year when Bill Belichick went for it on 4th down late in a game with the lead and the patriots failed to convert? Everyone was screaming for his head, despite the fact that from a statistical standpoint it was almost certainly the correct decision. I'm still waiting for a coach to implement the statistically advantageous strategy of trying to convert on most 4th downs: what type of situation would make trying this strategy possible?



sometimes innovation is dependant on the short term- viz. Atlanta's give-the-ball-to-Michael-Vick-and-see-what-happens offense

Mike B

You never mentioned the A-11 offense which was so innovative that other teams lobbied to have it banned. Ironically it reduces the sorts of brain trauma inducing contact that is currently plaguing the sport.

Chris H.

Copyright is very clear that ideas are not subject to copyright but the tangible expression of that idea are.

The expression of a specific football play is covered by copyright (like a playbook), but the play itself is not. It is the same as the description of a recipe being copyrightable but not the food or the preparation.

Being in a highly technical industry, I can tell you that innovation occurs in a competative environment, not in a sheltered environment. The reason is the same as why the rabbit runs faster than a hound: if a business doesn't innovate, it fails. What is the worst that can happen to a university? The proof is the failure of "tech transfer" offices at universities to earn any money trying to license patents and research.


Copyrights and patents are simply tools to create monopolies on ideas, and thus greatly increase the incentive to create.

But I fail to agree that their lack stymies the generation of new ideas. That is a rather pessimistic view of mankind.

Jonathan Katz

Copyright protects the expression of ideas in words or images, not the ideas themselves.


Just because there have been innovations in football does not mean that "innovation is thriving." I would argue that we are seeing the opposite. Patents allow us to separate the skills of inventing and running a business, and allow third parties to invest in research. To the best of my knowledge (I'm an IP person, not a football fan) teams don't invest money in researching new plays, beyond having teams run drills.
Without protection for a new play, I'd bet that an owner would rather spend money on a new weight room than a room full of football experts who craft new plays.
Further, because there isn't protection for IP, there is no market for a new play. None of the plays above came from someone outside the organization.
To be sure, I think football is better off without IP protection, because we are looking to maximize athletic feats, not improve play design.


Holy poop are you guys missing the point. I'm just a football fan for this post.

Just imagine football with copyright. Life+70 to be extended for all perpetuity for all innovation in plays. Practically every good play would have been exhausted and no one would be able to do anything but run. Every passing scheme is followed by a lawsuit from the heirs of a great coach.

So football would suck.

It wouldn't be the most popular sport in America. You wouldn't have teams worth billions of dollars. People would still be more invested in baseball.

The public domain is a huge source of value for all of society to pull from. Copyright encourages and stifles innovation. The goal is to find the balance. Currently, IP laws are crushing creation.

We live in a world with less because many creators are simply unable to compete in a market. Support an Intellectual Property Tax. If IP is valuable enough to waste court time over, it's valuable enough to pay taxes on.



The elephant in the room is that this is true of almost *all* industries.

It's not just fashion, food, funny, and football: people continue to create new writings, music, movies, and software through such means as Creative Commons licenses and the GNU GPL, even without the traditional copyright-based monopoly on distribution.

I would love to see an article explaining a situation where intellectual property actually *is* necessary as an incentive to production.

Derek Young

An interesting response to Cincinatti's no-huddle came in the playoffs that year. Chuck Knox, Seattle's very traditional coach, absolutely loathed the strategy. To get in his substitutes and send in new defensive packages Knox had one of his defensive players feign injury. Kevin Nash must have gone down 20 times during the game. Each time it happened the camera would pan to Knox with a devilish grin.

That year the rule changed to prevent players gaining advantage from fake injuries.

Michael F. Martin

Schumpeter vs. Arrow is a false dichotomy, even according to Arrow.

The key variables are the ratio of fixed to variable costs and transactions costs of obtaining, clearing, and enforcing property rights. For all of the controversial subject matter, both have been declining, but probably the former faster than the latter.


I think a point that is being overlooked here is the fact that the small guys (in football or industry) benefit greatly from no restrictions. With copyright/patent laws, the big guys can smother out the small guys due to larger resources (get to these innovations quicker, but not exactly execute them better) and then can also afford the legal costs without greatly effecting their bottom line.

My question is this... If somebody can do it better, why not allow them to do it? Overall, everybody is better off and those who can't do it better are then able to allocate their time and resources to doing something else that they can do better.

If only Oklahoma was allowed to run the option offense from 1980 on then we would have never been able to see Nebraska perfect it during the 90's. Also speaking of funny, always cool to see cover bands make money off of songs they don't own yet a comedian who uses other's bits is called a hack by the same crowd that watches the cover band and sings along.


Martin Schwimmer

The New England Patriots SpyGate scandal shows that there is IP protection (namely trade secret protection) encoded in the rules of the game of football.

I'm receptive to the idea that appropriate IP protection should be judged in an industry-specific context, however it may be misleading to compare the non-commercial activity of the game of football (in contrast to the commerical activity of providing an entertainment service), with commercial activity.


intellectual property is not property

Andis Kaulins

Martin Schwimmer refers to "the non-commercial activity of the game of football". ESPN has a nice article on the economic impact of the hire of Crimson Tide head coach Saban at Alabama at
The content of that article would seem to suggest to this observer that even college football is very much a commercial activity. It would seem in fact to this observer that the only "amateurs" in this industry are the unremunerated players.