The argument that the current patent system discourages collaborative innovation among partners — hurting scientific, technical, economic, and societal progress — is gaining steam. At the core of this is the swift emergence of, “open innovation,” described by Henry Chesbrough in 2003 [Open Innovation: The New Imperative for Creating and Profiting from Technology. Harvard Business School Press].
In a concise and compelling 2010 paper, Prof. Bronwyn Hall of UC Berkeley and United Nations University in Maastricht, described how the open innovation movement has influenced some large companies, including IBM and Microsoft, to change how they handle the protection and sharing of intellectual property. She concluded by showing that in the leading-edge world of social media, “open innovation is the norm, and it is somewhat less mediated by IP licensing agreements than in more mature industries.”
The question this brings to my mind is: do our IP practices hurt our ability to innovate in a world that is increasingly relying on partnerships between multiple organizations? Some examples that frame this question include:
- Data sharing. The oil and gas industry uses increasingly complex computer models to optimize the exploration and production of hydrocarbons. The more petabytes of historical data you can throw at those models, the more accurate the results will be. But that data is fragmented between governments, national oil companies, the “majors,” service companies, and small independent operators. At the Intelligent Energy 2012 conference last March, “can we share rather than hoard the data?” was one of the most frequently raised questions.
- Innovation brokers. Companies like Innocentive, founded in 2001, are directly related to Chesbrough’s idea. But how can they assure their clients that a crowdsourced innovation does not violate someone’s IP? Is the risk of an infringement lawsuit greater than the benefit of this open market?
- Anti-trust violations. In response to technology advances by the Japanese electronics industry, 14 semiconductor companies and organizations came together in the U.S. to establish a manufacturing technology research consortium called SEMATECH. This required an act of Congress, no less, to exempt them from anti-trust actions. Could other innovation partnerships face similar risks?
- Patent bureaucracies. As an example, my organization conducted a small research project using technology from a major computer manufacturer’s research lab. It took six months to get a mutually agreeable license agreement, even though we had no intent to exploit the idea commercially. The other party wanted protection (and future revenue from us) in case they created a commercial offering themselves — something they never did. In a separate case, our organization wanted a university lab to apply some of their techniques to a problem we had, requiring the disclosure of our own yet to be filed invention. The process was so slow that we had to forgo the opportunity altogether.
I’m so curious about the relationship between patents, the patent process, innovation, and collaboration, that I’ve signed on to be Guest Editor of the Cutter IT Journal issue exploring the topic. Here’s my call for papers. If you’d like to contribute an article, please send your abstract by July 6. Accepted articles are due August 10. You can look for the completed issue in September.