Friday, September 23, 2005

Patents – Getting a Read on Emerging Technologies

One way to get a read on the direction Emerging Technologies is taking is to look at filed patents. The information is public and taken as a whole; it can point out several trends.

Forrester Research analyzed 50,000 patents published between 2002 and 2004 and found that telecom and software inventions while still a big number is on the decline. Patents for Nanotechnology are on the increase.

The National Physics Laboratory in the UK set up a measurement system based on filed patents. They focus on three key areas including Medical, Advanced Materials, and Manufacturing themes. Their “patent map” of the manufacturing sector shows a shift to Nanosystems with applications clustering in near field optical microscopes, microactuators, tunable optical filters, microfluidic devices, gas sensing, to name just a few. Nanotechnology is a fruitful area of emerging technologies that goes beyond the arcane. In fact, the world of the small is going to be found nearly everywhere and in every application.

Technology Review offers a patent scorecard in Excel format providing a list of worldwide companies with the number of patents they have secured along with a rating for scientific linkage, current impact, and technology cycle time. They break it down into sectors covering Aerospace, Automotive, Biotechnology/Pharma, Chemicals, Computers, Electronics, Semiconductors, and Telecommunications. The absolute number of patents in the Computers, Electronics, and Semiconductors sectors vastly outweighs those in the Aerospace and Automotive fields.

Patents have become such a commodity market that Universities and Government institutions are setting up shop to “market” their patents. NASA has over 1000 patents they are seeking to commercialize through private industry.

Not everyone views patents to be a good thing. Open source advocates have long complained about the patent law process especially regarding software. Critics say the current US patent law provides too much protection to the owner of the patent and too little freedom to the user of software that may infringe on the patent. In this article the author outlines the challenges software developers and users face in confronting onerous patent filers.

Aside from driving innovation, patents provide another benefit – ego boost. Imagine you develop a cool new interface for an MP3 player. Let your imagination run wild and now you’re selling it in millions of units per year. It’s a dream come true. Now imagine your arch competitor obtains the patent for the interface. Now, it’s a nightmare come true. Microsoft won the patent on the Apple iPod menu interface. Check out this article for more details.

If you have an opinion about patents, I would like to hear from you. You can reach me at hall.martin@ni.com.

Best regards,
Hall T. Martin