SBJ/June 1 - 7, 1998/No Topic Name

Arena Football asks court to crack back on rival

James Foster probably won't go down in the history books with baseball's inventor, Abner Doubleday, or James Naismith, the man who dreamed up basketball.

But Foster, the creator of arena football, has something those two titans of sports didn't have: a U.S. patent. And it's not just for show.

Foster's Arena Football League and its parent company, Gridiron Enterprises Inc., have asked a federal judge to enjoin a rival start-up league, the Professional Indoor Football League, from infringing on its patent covering the arena-football style of play.

If an injunction is granted, it could spell the end for the PIFL, whose eight teams, including the Green Bay Bombers and the Louisiana Bayou Beast, began their first seasons in April. The AFL, which has been operating since 1986, has 15 teams, including the New York City Hawks and the Houston ThunderBears.

The AFL alleged trademark and copyright infringement, in addition to patent infringement, in a lawsuit filed in federal court in Chicago. A judge is scheduled to hear motions for an injunction against the PIFL this summer.

"We want them to stop playing our game," said William Niro, a patent attorney and a principal of Gridiron Enterprises. "It's fine if they want to go play football, they just can't do it on our turf."

The game that the PIFL is playing is "identical" in its most basic elements to the AFL games, Niro said. "The number of players, the dimensions of the field, the use of padded walls" are the same in both leagues.

Both AFL and PIFL games share many rules with conventional football, but arena-style football is played on a 50-yard field and typically is a high-scoring affair. Both leagues use eight-player teams instead of 11-man units seen in professional and college football.

Niro said the PIFL has argued it is not violating the patent because it doesn't use big nets to rebound kicks the way the AFL does. But "our patent is broader than that," he said.

PIFL Commissioner Dick Suess said he consulted patent attorneys before beginning the season and was advised that his league does not break the law.

"We're not worried about them," Suess said. "They're worried about us, and they are trying to harass us."

Suess said he decided to set up his own league after studying the Arena Football League. The AFL is trying to market the game in markets that are too big and its operating costs are high, Suess contended.

"In our league, you don't need to draw 10,000 or 11,000 to break even," he said. "You can break even by drawing 2,000 to 3,000."

Suess also thinks salaries of AFL players and coaches are too high. He said some AFL players make as much as $50,000 a year.

In the PIFL, coaches' annual salaries are capped at $15,000, while players receive a maximum of $400 a game. Despite the lower salaries, Suess contended, "Our players are just as good as theirs."

Niro disputes that. "The quality of this product that the PIFL is putting out, we are concerned is going to diminish the public's opinion of our game," he said.

J. Rick Tache, a patent attorney, said copyright and trademark infringement suits are common in sports, but patent infringements are not.

"I am personally unaware of any professional sport having a patent on its method of playing," he said. "Team sports like tennis and golf and football were invented when patents were in their infant stage, and no one thought to patent a game."

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