The patent game - peering into the soul of an organization's innovation

Wed Oct 9, 2013 5:14am EDT

(This article was produced independently of the Reuters newsroom. It was created by the public relations department of another Thomson Reuters unit, the Intellectual Property & Science division.)

There's a little known fact among those who work at patent offices or in the intellectual property (IP) space: nearly 80 percent of the information contained in patent documents is not publicly available anywhere else.

Once one understands the realm of IP, this makes perfect sense. The patent application process is one of secrecy and, oftentimes, ambiguity. IP attorneys want to protect the invention of their client or company, without giving away what the company is developing. Sure, there is an internal group within the filing organization that is privy to specifics of the invention, but part of the "game" is to keep that information as secret as possible until the company is ready to bring the end product to market.

So, it's often the case that these attorneys, who typically do the filing, will mask inventions using text that intentionally disguises the item for which protection is being sought. For example, if Company A were to file a patent for a light bulb (assuming it was a novel, useful and non-obvious item - the three requirements for an invention to be patented), the filer might refer to it as an "incandescent fixture that illuminates the surrounding area with a glow to make things see-able," or something like this. Nowhere in the description would the words "light bulb" appear.

The advantages of this are probably obvious - by so doing, the invention, once publicly disclosed in the patent application filing process, may not be detected by competitors or others monitoring the landscape, thereby giving the filing company additional time to get and stay out in front of competition.

And this is where patenting becomes fun.

If you are someone who likes playing the game Clue or doing word jumbles or cryptogram puzzles, you'd probably be a great patent attorney. You'd use different tactics to either conceal or identify what is being protected by or for a company, all in the name of staying on the cutting edge of your field.

This background is also important in understanding why patents are such a great proxy for innovation. As patents, also known as intangible assets, have moved to corporate balance sheets as financial assets, they've taken on a new role in the realm of corporate competition. With the ability to generate in the hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars for the sellers of such assets, the stakes are extremely high. And, as they are the window into the soul of a company's R&D activity, they form the bridge between idea generation and monetization, two pillars of innovation.

In the day and age before computers and the Internet, when electronic access to patent information was not possible, these assets were hidden in the basements and silence of vast libraries in hard-copy repositories. It was a time consuming, laborious process to find out who was protecting what and where. One had to go to the patent office itself and search in the stacks through copies of patent documents. And one had to do this at each patent office under investigation - whether in the U.S., Europe, Asia or elsewhere.

Modern technology has expedited this process. And, it has shone a new light on patents, giving them the attention and recognition they deserve. With a database such as the Thomson Reuters Derwent World Patents Index (DWPI), playing the patent game and peering into a company's R&D and innovation efforts has never been easier.

This isn't a sales pitch - it's a classroom lesson in just how valuable patents are. DWPI is a proprietary database with literally an army of editors, many with PhDs in specialized fields, who read every patent from 48 patent offices around the world, and then re-write the title, abstract and description of the document in laymen's terms. It's the most unique and valuable patent resource around the world, and it's the reason Thomson Reuters is able to annually predict the Top 100 Global Innovators.

Analysts can see what is being protected by whom and where, and how future innovators evaluate and leverage an invention by citing it. That provides a unique picture of the innovation activity of an organization.

There are other Top Innovator lists that have been published, some that are more subjective and others that mirror a group of individuals with their unique biases that aim to identify the essence of innovation. But none seem to quantify innovation as the Thomson Reuters list does.

The unique angle of the Thomson Reuters Top 100 Global Innovators list is that it is a scientific, objective review of organizations that are investing millions or billions of dollars in R&D. With this as the backdrop, the Thomson Reuters analysts are able to then assess each company based on their success rate (of patent applications to grants); global nature of portfolio (which inventions are protected in just one country, versus in the four leading jurisdictions); and the influence of the portfolio (how many others are citing the inventions of the company).

When this is layered with the rich financial insight and detail of the organizations under consideration (also from the Thomson Reuters coffers of information), this list shows that these companies are not only scientifically deemed to be innovative, but they are also commercially successful. This shows how patents are a proxy for innovation and how they give a unique perspective on what is being invented and protected-insights only known by a few.

If you haven't yet played the patent game, time is a wasting. It's fun and fascinating - and unveils secrets others don't yet know.

(This article was produced independently of the Reuters newsroom. It was created by the public relations department of another Thomson Reuters unit, the Intellectual Property & Science division.)

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