On Sept. 30, 1987, a man named James F. Foster filed a patent described as a "football game system and method of play." The patent filing begins like this:
A new game is disclosed, involving substantially the same rules as American football (e.g., NFL or NCAA) except that kicks or passes into the end zone may be deflected back onto the playing field as a playable ball by a rebounding assembly that surrounds the goalposts.
That patent laid the groundwork for the sport of Arena Football, and that patent will expire on Sept. 30, 2007. So does that mean the Arena Football League needs to be worried about rival leagues taking the idea? I asked Chris McCloskey, an AFL executive vice president.
Regarding the patent, it may have given the AFL an edge to build its brand during its formative years, but today it is just one element of the League's intellectual property, and when it expires, there are still numerous mechanisms for the AFL to protect itself. In addition, the AFL is the premier brand in indoor football and we do not foresee the patent expiration affecting our business.
Obviously, simply having a patent on the rules is neither necessary nor sufficient to having a successful sports league, so it's not like the expiration of the patent is going to wreak havoc on the league. But with the report that the league's most visible owner, John Elway, would like to see big changes (a report that McCloskey disputes), it's worth remembering that if someone wants to start a rival league, that will get easier on Sept. 30.