Burton’s Binding Patent Protection Sparks Protest

Burton’s protection of its 3D patent has been an on-again, off-again issue that once more seems to be gaining momentum. In fact, it’s riled up one group so much that they’ve circulated an anti-Burton protest letter and T-shirt to retailers. So, how did three holes stir up so much trouble?

According to Burton General Consul Scott Barrett, on the last day of the SIA show in Las Vegas Burton handed out about 30 letters to binding manufacturers asking them to either pay a royalty on any binding sold with a three-hole compatible rotor disk or stop offering bindings that are three-hole compatible.

Unlike most snowboards, which feature a four-screw board-binding attachment, Burton offers a unique three-screw setup that makes it necessary for binding manufacturers to either modify existing four-hole rotor disks so they also fit Burton boards, or offer a separate three-hole compatible disk.

Burton controls the patent for the three-hole pattern — both on boards and bindings — and Barrett says the company is just trying to protect its interests. “Recently we’ve noticed more manufacturers tending to infringe upon that patent,” says Barrett. “When confronted with that, we had several options. Rather than shut the manufacturers down per se, we decided to offer a license at a very reasonable rate—generally around two percent of wholesale. Our feeling is that in terms of most technology transfers, two percent is a very modest fee. We wanted to be able to share technology and yet make sure manufacturers understand that we control that particular patent.”

One industry estimate says that 500,000 three-hole-compatible bindings are likely to be sold each year. If average wholesale price of a binding is hovering around 70 dollars, Burton would receive around 700,000 dollars a year in royalty payments if everyone agreed to the terms of the letter. Other estimates peg the total number of bindings sold worldwide at close to 1.6 million pairs.

“We spoke to roughly 30 different binding brands, and we’re currently in discussions with several of them,” says Barrett. “Several others have already made agreements with us.”

According to the brands, this patent letter won’t affect Sims or Drake. Drake has already come to an understanding with Burton, and Sims has its own patent on its Universal Disk Pattern. “In fact,” says Sims President Steve Dewar, “our patent references the Burton patent, so we’re very comfortable that this type of issue won’t affect us.

“I do understand the need to protect intellectual property,” continues Dewar. “The patent on our particular toe ramp has clearly been infringed upon by all types of manufacturers. However, it’s extremely expensive to litigate this type of process, and you never know beyond a shadow of a doubt how it will end up in a court of law. So you’ve got to pick you battles.”

According to Switch President Eric Anderson, “The whole idea of having bindings work with all different types of boards is fundamental to our sport. I think it’s the letter a load of crap. Burton was talking about this at last year’s ISPO. They were asking for a pretty high royalty back then. We said it doesn’t make sense. The worst-case scenario is that the price of bindings will simply go up and snowboarders will have to pay more.”

What’s thrown some manufacturers is the broad interpretation of the patent. “We’ve always known that offering a 3D rotor disk identical to Burton’s was something we had to stay clear of,” says one binding manufacturer exec who asked to remain anonymous. “I think we were all caught off-guard when they said that it’s not just the 3D rotor, it’s offering any binding that’s compatible with Burton’s boards.

“I mean, didn’t we go through this seven years ago with them only selling bindings that fit Burton boards?” he continues. “How long did that last before every retailer was pissed at them and they had to back down? Come on! It’s snowboarding. Can’t we just go do our jobs, market our products, and let retailers decide?”

This isn’t the only bitter criticism of Burton. In fact, one anonymous group or individual that dubs itself “Free To Turn” has circulated a Unabomber-esque letter and T-shirt to retailers about the entire three-hole-compatible issue. The letter says, in part: “Why don’t you tell us how you’d like to see this come out: a) Binding makers all pay the royalty, but the cost to you and your customers go sic up six to ten percent. b) Binding makers stop offering products which are three-hole compatible. c) Burton puts their 3D patent in the same file as their ‘snowboard’ patent and works to build the sport up instead of tearing the industry apart.”

While its campaign perhaps relies on alarmist rhetoric, Free To Turn has brought the three-hole issue to the forefront and placed the focus on the retailer — where Burton’s critics hope it remains.

“How will the retailer react,” asks another binding executive who asked to remain anonymous, “if a customer walks up to the cash register with a new binding and a board from Burton, and the retailer has to tell them that the two products don’t work together? My guess is that Mr. Retailer would look pretty poorly at Mr. Burton. Or what about the huge package deals a retailer like Intersport puts together? If the 30,000 Snowpro bindings won’t fit on the 30,000 Burton boards, what is Intersport going to do?”

Chris Bachman, owner of the Shred Shop in Skokie, Illinois, carries Burton snowboards in his shop but has been critical of the brand in the past. “It doesn’t surprise me that they sent out a letter like that,” he says. “They want to, in essence, dictate how the snowboard market is run. Their attitude seems to be that it’s a privilege to carry Burton product. But really things like this tend to hurt brand image more than they help.”

Bachman also believes that the real reason for the patent is to find out the sales of others’ brands. “If everyone pays royalties, then Burton will be the only brand that knows exactly how many bindings are being sold, who’s selling them, and what their market share percentage is. I don’t think that’s right.” Of course, Burton would know these figures only on those bindings that were three-hole compatible.

Val Surf & Sport President Mark Richards takes credit for his shop being the first Burton dealer in the world, and says he remains a true-blue supporter of the brand. He’s also received the Free To Turn letter and T-shirt. “I talked to Sales Manager Clark Gundlach at Burton about it, and I believe they’re a little concerned that binding manufacturers feel they can use a three-hole disc at will with conventional strap bindings. Of course, ideally, they’d like to see every Burton board go out with a Burton binding. It’s not that they want a monopoly, it’s just a good, strong business practice. They have a strong program.

“Do I believe in how they are going about enforcing it? I’m torn,” continues Richards. “I’m a hardcore Burton dealer, but you can’t deny that brands like Drake have really stepped it up in the past few years. So, is that the right way to fight it? I don’t know. I definitely don’t agree with the Free To Turn approach where someone can hang back anonymously and slag Burton. I don’t agree with that at all.

“As a retailer we’ve fought for years to make the industry uniform in its standards,” says Richards. “With skateboarding, I’ve dealt with dozens of mounting setups, but the industry eventually agreed on a four-by-four configuration. From a retailer’s perspective, it makes a lot of sense for the industry to do that.”

At Cal’s Pharmacy in Portland, Oregon, longtime employee Nichole Vella says she’s familiar with the Free To Turn campaign but says it’s received mixed reviews at the store. “The T-shirts are pretty funny though,” she says. “The idea that Burton wants to have people pay seems kind of stupid, but I’m not sure how I feel. I guess it makes them look kind of anal. People have been making three-hole compatible bindings for so long, it seems like they’re just waking up and se
e this as another way to make money. I think they’re too late. If they cared so much, why didn’t they do something years ago?”

Burton Director of Marketing David Schrieber reiterates that the fee is modest and the need to protect intellectual property real. And referring to the hornet’s nest the letter has stirred up, Schrieber makes sly reference to the last anti-Burton T-shirt (which read, “You can’t patent fun”) by saying, “I think you can patent fun.”

—Sean O’Brien with additional reporting from John Stouffer