Friday, 16th December, 2011

Patents are a virtue: The patent office

An often overlooked source of market intelligence is the patent office. It publishes information about patent and trade mark applications that are made by companies and these publications are often the first signs that a company is undertaking new initiatives.

As an example, Ben Lexcen's patent application for the winged keel used by the Australians in the 1983 Americas Cup was published at the Dutch patent office and the keel's blueprint drawings were there for everyone to see before the race was over. Competing syndicates allegedly went to all sorts of measures to try and find out what the Aussies were using, including employing submarines and divers. A photocopy of the Dutch patent would have been a lot cheaper - and more informative.

Patent applications need to be filed before there is public disclosure of the invention and before anyone else files a patent application for the same thing. IP savvy companies take the risks to their patent applications very seriously and will often file patent applications for inventions still on the drawing board well before the invention hits the market.

Many patent offices will publish patent applications 18 months after filing. The published patent will include detailed information about the invention and how it can be made to work. For some technologies, information about an invention is exclusively shown in patent documents and nowhere else. In fact some companies conduct monthly watching searches of patent office records to see if their competitors have lodged patents that may reveal new initiatives. This can help IP threats and opportunities.

Patent landscaping can be another way to search for competitors' patents and find out what they're up to. Patent landscaping is a technology that 'maps' patent assets (e.g. granted patents, published applications and unpublished applications) and can correlate patent data with non-patent data to provide some context.

For example, Google, Inc is as much a search engine company as it is a clean tech company. Recent patent publications have revealed Google's interest in energy efficient cooling technology after it realised that the cost of cooling their large data centres was a significant operating cost.  When a search on a patent mapping tool is carried out for their cooling data centres, the result shows significant patent numbers in areas not traditionally known to Google.

Some IP savvy companies may hide their patent applications by filing patent applications in an IP holding company that has quite a different name, Kootol Software being a great example. It is reportedly active in the patent space. However, searching the United States database, the Google patent database, and Thomson Innovation, show no patents assigned to any company named Kootol. But competitors watching their patents will know ways of tracking such patents down. 

Trade mark applications are published by the intellectual property office the same way patent applications are. In many countries the brand and the applicant details are published the day the application is lodged. This is how competitors often learn of products well before they are granted permission from regulatory authorities. Companies wanting to have the benefit of registered trade mark protection, but not wanting to let the cat out of the bag prematurely, will adopt a filing strategy that can keep the brand details out of sight for six months or more.  This can be important so as to ensure the first mover advantage is maintained for as long as possible.

So if you want to know a little bit more about your competitor, patent searching through landscaping tools or the patent office could be the place to look first.

An edited version of this column was published in NZ Marketing magazine - January/February 2012