Duke Tech Talks Patents

We talk a lot about innovation in this publication. Today, we’re going to explore how patents apply to tech, and how it might be a good idea to secure a patent to protect your innovations, if you’re starting a startup or tech business, even if you’re still completing your undergraduate degree.

Innovation always starts with an idea. You may have noticed a problem that can’t be solved with current technology and you want to find a way to fix it. Your original idea is first refined and researched, before ultimately, you are able to develop a new product or service. That process, from idea to invention can take years, which makes it important to protect your intellectual property and prevent others from taking advantage of your hard work during the development of your business. A patent gives you the sole right to produce, sell or export your invention, for a limited time, and stops competitors from copying your new ideas. Patent protections are essential to making the most of your invention, however, can they also hinder innovation?

Patents have been used to protect the intellectual property rights of inventors for hundreds of years. The US Congress granted its first patent in 1790 for a unique method of producing potash. To receive a patent, technical information about the invention must be disclosed in a patent application, which is also made available to the public. If approved, the patent holder will have exclusive commercial rights to their invention for up to 20 years. Patented inventions must be new and involve some ingenuity or inventive skill, but they do not need to be complex or a major breakthrough. Even simple or small improvements can be patented as long as they still offer significant advantages over the existing technology.

Critics of the patent system argue that it hinders innovation because a patent holder can have rights over a broad subject matter. Most technologies are developed by multiple inventors over many years. They could be working independently from one another, while simultaneously contributing to the same idea. Inventors who successfully assemble the many pieces of a technology puzzle into a finished product must consult with a patent attorney to learn whether their invention is covered by one or more patents owned by others. For example, early inventors could have patented a small part of a new technology yet their protection will cover the entire thing.

If you want to use the technology described in a patent, then the patented technology can be licensed, usually for a fee. Alternatively, inventors can also choose to redesign their technology to steer clear of existing patents. However, these steps can be costly and time-consuming, which means it is no longer economically viable to continue with the new technology. Failure to secure license for the relevant patents creates a risk of litigation from the patent holder, which could also force the new technology out of the marketplace. A prime example of this is the “smartphone patent war” which took almost a decade to resolve. Smartphone technology can encompass hundreds of patents, including many that are not granted until long after the new product is launched.

Major mobile device manufacturers, including Apple, Google and Samsung, have contested dozens of lawsuits over smartphone patents. Patents can be a way to opportunistically hinder competitors (in this case) in the lucrative smartphone market. In fact, the amount that Apple and Google have spent on patents exceeds the amount spent on research and development of new products. Apple and Samsung have had a long-running patent dispute over claims that the slide-to-unlock feature on a phone was Apple’s invention. Apple convinced the courts to patent their version of this feature, despite evidence that inventors before Apple had already accomplished key steps to implement this feature. The two companies went back and forth for seven years before Samsung agreed to pay license fees to Apple to settle the case.

Innovation is crucial to the continuing success of any organization. It means coming up with new ways to do things which leads to more effective products and ideas. Patents help protect those ideas and allow the inventors to profit from their hard work. Without the patent system, there would not be the same motivation to spend time and resources on innovation. However, patents for minor improvements may also prevent others from building on the technology which in turn holds back the process of innovation. The patent system needs to ensure that the rights of inventors to protect their ideas isn’t at the expense of technological advancement.