Friday, 27 May 2016

The Wasteland: when patent landscapes don't deliver

"More than 50% patent landscape analyses are a waste of money!" This strident title crowns a recent GreyB blogpost by Shikhar Sahni (General Manager, Operations) and Abhishek Bhatia (Team Lead, Concept Hackers) that cries out for attention.

Before we go any further, it must be conceded that, while it has been in use for a few years, the term "patent landscape" is not familiar to all members of the IP community; indeed, a Google search for that term summoned up just 83,000 results, a fairly poor score for an IP buzz-term.  If you are among the uninitiated, you'll find a helpful explanation of the concept on Mike Lloyd's Amberblog, here. At base, it's an overview of patenting activity within a specific field of technology.  If you'd like to see what they look like, the World Intellectual Property Organization's website hosts a number of patent landscape reports -- though none is more recent than 2014, which is pretty much ancient history in patent terms if you consider that the average granted patent will have expired, lapsed or been invalidated before it reaches its 10th birthday.

Unlike "patent landscape", the term "waste of money" is very well understood (a corresponding Google search under that term yields some 40 million results).  However, even in business there is no consensus as to what the term covers.  Some people regard insurance premiums as a waste of money unless they have been able to make a successful claim in order to recover more than the cost of their cover. In the world of innovation, there are those who regard patents as a waste of money since most of the innovative embodiments which they protect are never used in industry and, even if they are, if they're not infringed they may as well not have been patented in the first place.  In this article, though, the waste of money is clearly the cost of commissioning a patent landscape analysis that does not deliver the information necessary for its commissioner to make business decisions.   As indicated in the previous paragraph, age is a factor.  Even a good landscape analysis is a waste of money if it's not acted upon while it is still current -- and that can be a vert short time in fast-moving sectors.  Relying on a landscape analysis that is six months old can be as beneficial as eating a six-month-old sandwich retrieved from the back of the fridge.

The GreyB article makes some useful points.  In particular it emphasises that users of patent landscape analyses each have their own requirements.  A financial investor, a business executive considering a proposed product launch, a governmental competition authority seeking to monitor antitrust activities, a statistic-crunching academic economist and a patent litigator will all look at the same landscape but see different things in it.

This is an important point, since a landscape can be prepared in such a manner as to enable its intended user to extract the information sought as easily as possible.  But if the consumer's need is not borne in mind, the value of the exercise may be diminished or lost. And, if the user is not invited or encouraged to make it plain exactly why the landscape is requested, the chances are that it may be of little or no value.  To give an analogy, both a street map of Manhattan and a plan of the Metro are designed to help visitors to New York to get around but, if you're a pedestrian, the Metro plan is of strictly limited utility.

Say Sahni and Bahtia, on the basis of their own observations:
" ... a majority of analysis are conducted without having the consumer’s goal and the work area in mind. As a result, the end user fails to draw any insights and an analysis dies by its own hand".
This failure is not inevitable and, as the authors explain, the solution is very much in the customers' hands.  But this requires an element of education and understanding on the part of the person commissioning the landscape and, given the sometimes serious lack of general knowledge and detailed understanding which is endemic in the area of IP-driven innovation and investment, it will not be until landscape consumers know what to ask for, and why they are asking for it, that we can expect the utility rating for these exercises to pass the halfway mark.

For more on patent landscape analysis, see our earlier blogpost, "Patent landscape and IP competitive intelligence: should every company have it?", here.

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