This was the question asked at the IAM IP in Auto conference and at the Cipher Roundtable the following day. The roundtable was conducted under the Chatham House Rule, but the automotive OEM and supplier perspective is fascinating, even without attribution.
Before we share the findings, take a moment to consider a range of possible answers to How Many is Enough?: (A) One good one (B) One more than your competitor (C) None at all (D) As many as you can (E) Balanced by reference to your market share
You will be not disappointed to learn that all these views were well represented—and hotly debated. What follows are the highlights.
One good one
When push comes to shove, what is required is a patent that reads squarely onto a third-party product. This utopian view assumes that any more than this is superfluous. While nothing more than an attractive theory, it squarely framed the quality over quantity debate. While the majority favored focusing on quality, there was a degree of consensus over the challenges of living the dream. First, in all large portfolios, 80% of the value is in 20% of the portfolio (there is no getting away from Pareto) and secondly, what constitutes quality is contextual and temporal – and many warned about trying to predict what would be important in the future (favoring active portfolio review over throttling back on filing).
One more than your competitor
More than one participant had this view. The reasoning is that this sits at the heart of détente – the reality that OEMs and suppliers all have sufficiently large portfolios that no one has any incentive to stir up a hornet’s nest. Without wanting to mix too many metaphors, it is the classic nuclear arm’s race. There was also an internal perspective – an accessible metric to prove that you are better than the competition.
There were a number of challenges to the simplicity of this approach. First, arms race mentality escalates, and patent budgets do not. Secondly, not all competitors are equal: Pirelli has no reason to think that it should have as many patents as Bridgestone. Thirdly, it requires objective and repeatable access to strategic patent intelligence: a way of mapping your patents to technologies and then benchmarking to others using the same taxonomy. This would be even more important at a time when the automotive ecosystem is evolving to include both technology companies and start-ups.
None at all
There is an active secondary market for patents. This enables organizations that are sued to acquire the patents they need to counter-assert as and when required. So why go to the cost and inconvenience of filing your own? The consensus was that while build or buy was a feature of all mature patent strategies, this could only be a supplement for those organizations who use their portfolios to maintain their exclusivity.
There was also a hint of anti-US patent reform from “the none at all” camp. While this is an overreaction, there is a trend towards a better understanding and protection of trade secrets – and a recognition that as AI is increasingly deployed to make strategic patent intelligence more accessible, there is competitive risk associated with the publication of technical information in patent specifications.
It was also great to have representatives of both LOT and AON IP Solutions present, as the existence of more and different ways to mitigate and manage IP risk will be increasingly important when determining what is the right size of any given portfolio.
As many as you can
Patents are valuable assets, so more is more. This triggered an interesting debate. Patents don’t come for free, so on a cost/benefit analysis, there is a point at which a portfolio meets the law of diminishing returns. Finding that point is addressed in an IAM article, AI for evidence-based decisions, Swycher, Harris (2019) and works on the principle of proportionality to market share e.g. if you have a 25% market share in Lidar you should own 25% of the patents (with less than that you face exposure to third party patents, and more than that is over-stocking).
A quick read of this summary suggests that it’s every organization for itself, but that’s simply not the case. Many who attended the roundtable had worked for multiple organizations and were happy to confirm that this is a perennial problem, which is coming under increasing scrutiny from GCs, CFOs and CTOs.
There were two standout points driving organizations to find their answer (in addition to budget pressures). First, the risk of litigation. There was no expectation that détente would continue, and participants reported a rise in NPE litigation (just one if the reasons why so many automotive companies are members of LOT). Secondly, the pace of change. The need to shift to a world of electrification and autonomy requires a very different mix of technologies, so the riddle only begins with how many is enough?, before tacking on the extra step …of what?
The roundtable was hosted by Cipher Automotive, the leading provider of strategic patent intelligence to the automotive sector. Cipher includes a taxonomy of 200 automotive technologies and automatically maps patents to technologies, and is used by many OEMs and their suppliers to support portfolio development, competitive intelligence and for monitoring technology trends.
Nigel Swycher is the founder and CEO of Aistemos, based in London. Aistemos has developed Cipher as the only strategic patent intelligence software to use AI to analyze patented technologies (www.cipher.ai). We work closely with LOT Network to monitor assets marketed and sold to NPEs. Aistemos was an early member of LOT Network.
Nigel is also a director of the Open Register of Patent Ownership (www.oropo.net), committed to building a global database of who owns the world’s patents and is recognized by the IAM Strategy 300 as a leader in his field. Prior to Aistemos, Nigel had a long career in the law and led the intellectual property practice at leading law firm Slaughter and May.