Centre for Internet & Society

This is the third of a four-part blog series1 highlighting findings from a small sample of interviews with fabless semiconductor industry professionals in Taiwan. These industry insiders was approached for the intent of understanding expert knowledge on the process of integrated circuit design. However, the conversations resulted in leanings far beyond that scope. This post explores some of their views on the current intellectual property system.

The intellectual property framework is meant to provide a temporary monopoly so those taking the risk to invest time, money, and resources into research and development can reap the returns for that investment without having to worry about others undercutting their price and competing for market share. Registration of patents supposedly encourages the dissemination of ideas and overall greater knowledge contribution for public access and eventual public domain. The interviewees were asked about their thoughts on this system of protection, incentivization, and knowledge-share, resulting in five broad themes:

1) Expertise trumps patent ownership

Particularly today in a digital world where innovative ideas and concepts can be easily shared, the first thing many people think about when discussing innovation, is the need to protect via patents. A vast amount of literature attempts to review the implications of patents' on technological innovation and economic development.

However, one interviewee noted that this emphasis on patent protection often overshadows what is much vital to the success of a technology business or industry - the people: the expertise and experience of the companies, their engineers, and their management. A lot of knowledge and 'intellectual property' lies in the procedures and processes which have resulted in effective application of standards and high level of performance for ones' products. The value of these skills and intelligence of human resources far outweigh the importance of protecting and owning patents.

2) Broken patent system

There was a clear consensus that the number one intellectual property concern is the need to revamp the current patent regime, with all interviewees agreeing that "useless patents" were being filed. Some suggestions for improvement included international standardization regarding the definition of a patent, the process of patent applications, and the scope of what a patent should cover. One interviewee believed that currently, the patent system actually prevents technological innovation, because one single patent can cover many ways of achieving something. The Apple patent entitled ' Method for providing human input into computer' which patents nearly every single possible human-computer interaction is an example of this.

"Patents today are trivial, and don't contain information regarding HOW to make something; there are too many process and design patents, and not enough functional patents...merely competitive differentiations rather than fundamental technological changes" .

This quote expressed the perception that only inventions that affect functionality in a fundamental way should be patented. A patent should not be claimed for something you cannot do, or does not show any kind of knowledge for how to solve a problem. One interviewee suggested that if a patent is granted without use for 3 years either by the owner or through licensing, the patent should be considered invalid.

Another industry expert explained that numerous patent applications are entered into the system without enough resources and competencies in the government to review them well. Albeit suggested in a joking manner, there may be truth to his claim that a knowledgeable intellectual property tech expert would opt to work for the more lucrative law firm over the government. He observed over the years a cycle where patents are easily approved, in which if a lawsuit arose, the patents are assessed more carefully again, resulting in massive inefficiencies for the system.

3. Patent Trolls

The poor execution of the patent system has resulted in the phenomenon of 'patent trolls', or what is more neutrally termed as non-practicing entities ("NPEs")[1] or patent assertion entities ("PAEs").[2] As explained by one interviewee, the business models of these entities often begin by conceiving of future technologies which may be necessary or foreseeable in the near future. Then, they seek to patent those ideas with no intention of actually producing producing or manufacturing the product. The main purpose is to profit through litigation and licensing. An example given of a patent trolling company was "Intellectual Ventures", which describes themselves as an "invention capital company" that "owns some of the world's largest and fastest growing intellectual property portfolios"[3]

The difficulty is that patent trolls are virtually indistinguishable from aspiring inventors and engineers, who may seek to manufacture and scale up their products through outsourcing and licensing. In addition, the lack of actual production makes valuation, legislation, and enforcement around this practice extremely difficult.

"The problem is, the guys who have patents think it's worth this much money… and the company that wants to license think it's worth another amount. From a regulatory or legal point of view, it's very difficult to legislate these things… you can't legislate a value right? In the end, it's how much the customer is willing to pay for it. It doesn't matter how many years someone's been working on it, if no one wants to buy it, it's not worth anything."

Robert L Stoll, former USPTO Commissioner of Patents says the most effective way to reduce predatory behavior is to ensure bad patents don't get issued in the first place, highlighting a legislation in the America Invests Act of 2011 which allows third parties to challenge granted patents on basis of former prior art, and non-technical financial or product patent.[4] Increased collaboration shown through standards and cross-licensing

The development of standards is very "fashionable" at the moment, according to one interviewee, who expressed his desire for his own company to be more involved in the process. However, another interviewee stated that more could be done to enhance collaboration within industry so that technologies could be provided free of licensing and ultimately benefit society at large through greater interoperability. Although there are signs of partnerships through cross-licensing agreements, particularly amongst larger firms, there are limitations because not everyone, including small firms, can afford it.

Most interviewees also expressed the need for greater emphasis on knowledge and research, rather than relying on proprietary technologies, which may actually hinder technological innovation. Examples given for companies doing this were Google and IBM, who both have more of a research background, and potentially have more research and development resources to engage in this kind of work.

5) Need for more openness

One interviewee who had extensive experience in the hackerspace community was an advocate for openness within the industry, and believed many companies had the option to become more open and effectively 'outsource' their research and development to the larger community.

Some successful projects he suggested was an open-sourced graphics processing unit ("GPU"), which does not exist even for the largely open Rasberry Pi. Even the development of a lower quality open sourced GPU in the market would result in tremendous demand, in his opinion. The ARM technology, the most popular CPU in the market is also currently semi-closed, and could in his opinion have benefited from more openness.

One interviewee expressed disappointment that all of the chips in his company was proprietary, even those that were no longer in production due to fear that competitors would be able to anticipate future developments from past projects. He suspected that many things were protected simply because the legal department assumed confidential and proprietary, without necessarily a coordinated long-term vision from head management. It is this normalized culture in industry that is, in his opinion a great hindrance to innovation, development, and accessibility of technology.




The views and opinions expressed on this page are those of their individual authors. Unless the opposite is explicitly stated, or unless the opposite may be reasonably inferred, CIS does not subscribe to these views and opinions which belong to their individual authors. CIS does not accept any responsibility, legal or otherwise, for the views and opinions of these individual authors. For an official statement from CIS on a particular issue, please contact us directly.