When you hear that someone is filing a patent for a system that will track down white space in a given industry, then you know you’ve come across the ultimate patent maniac. Why so? White space is a term used to specify one or more technical fields in a sector where little or no intellectual property (IP) exists. What the patent applicant expects to do with such a tool is to identify these voids and create new IP to occupy the empty spaces. Whoa! How much more focused can you get about innovation?
The answer is not any more than IBM, the applicant for ‘Methodologies and analytics tools for identifying white space opportunities in a given industry’. IBM, or Big Blue, is the world’s largest owner of IP with over 40,000 global patents and continues to be the leading patent holder in the US for the 15th consecutive year. The latest application, revealed last week by the US Patent and Trademarks Office (USPTO), has caused a bit of a flutter with its vacuum cleaner approach to IP, surprising for a company that doesn’t seem to be short on ideas.
Whether it is something as esoteric as stem cell research or as mundane as the lawn-sprinkler business, IBM has come up with some extraordinary innovations. Take two recent examples. One of its patent applications is for lawn-sprinkler systems that receive transmissions about the weather and adjust their irrigation levels accordingly. The radio transmitter station sends out weather reports, and the sprinklers, outfitted with sensors, receive the information and automatically deactivate if rain is forecast. A great invention, perhaps, for those who cannot be bothered to do something as simple as turning off a faucet. Besides, it helps to save water.
Or look at something more ambitious. IBM wants to patent a means of responding to chaos — disasters caused by unpredictable nature or volatile humankind. According to an USPTO filing, the corporation is seeking a patent for a “system and method for optimising the selection, verification, and deployment of expert resources in a time of chaos”. Chaos, as defined by the computer giant, ranges from hurricanes, earthquakes, tidal waves, solar flares and flooding to terrorism, war and pandemics. So, when the next terrorist attack takes place in the US or another Hurricane Katrina strikes the coast, Big Blue would come to the rescue with a patented solution.
The point here is not to dilate on the amazing range and scope of Big Blue’s innovations — not all that surprising if you have research stables overflowing with scientist including several Nobel Prize winners and enough funds to keep them all happily engaged — but to highlight something paradoxical.
While IBM goes around mopping up an incredible number of patents, it also gives away bagsful. First it was with software, in 2005, when it donated 500 patents to the open source movement. It was a surprising move that caught the software universe off guard. Why, asked the intensely-suspicious anti-patent lobby, did a corporation with the reputation that Big Blue had, want to subscribe to a philosophy that was antithetical to its corporate culture? For the most part, software developers welcomed the gift, seeing in it the beginnings of a changed perception on the part of the computer behemoth. Some though remained hostile and unmoved.
The IBM donation, said the critics, should not be viewed in ideological terms even if the corporation had been trying to foster such a perception. In fact, some of the crabbier members of the open source movement declared that half of the 500 patents were pretty much useless and that the donation benefited only the stockholders. That debate is still open.
Now comes another such gesture from Big Blue, but one which may not generate as much heat. IBM has come together with Nokia, Sony Corporation and Pitney Bowes to set up a common pool of patents that will help to protect the environment. Known as the Eco-Patent Commons, it offers free of cost technologies that have a positive impact on the environment. The founder-members have been joined by Bosch, DuPont and Xerox and close to a hundred patents are on offer, according to the World Business Council for Sustainable Development which launched the initiative in January this year.
IBM says the Eco-Patent Commons is consistent with commitments made earlier “not to assert IP rights for hundreds of patents involving software interoperability and the open source, healthcare and education communities”. Besides, says the company, it cares greatly for the environment (which might help to explain the sprinklers and suchlike). Perhaps, when you are rich enough, you can afford to be philanthropic. Is the patenting frenzy necessary to feed good causes? Would anyone care to explain the mysteries of Big Blue?
6 months ago