There’s quite a bit in the press these days about companies (surprisingly, some very large ones) aggressively investing to expand their IP portfolios by purchasing patents or filing for patents on anything that can be imagined – often without stopping to consider whether the “innovation” has utility and is truly novel and non-obvious. Sun is often approached by companies looking to purchase patents (a reflection of the value of our IP) and at times we do sell patents under the right terms, conditions and circumstances.
To some degree, this topic has a very Cold War feel to it with companies growing patent stockpiles to use if attacked or as a form of “mutual deterrence”. But, at some point, a company needs to ask how many patents it really needs. And, that’s exactly what we did about three years ago. Up to that time Sun was filing well over 1,000 patent applications per year. But, in 2005, we made the decision to reduce our patent filings to the point that we had about 700 patents issued last year. And this number may decline in the future. While this is still a sizable number for most companies, it is a significant decline for Sun and occurs during a period in which we have more innovation than at any point in Sun’s history.
Why the change? Part of the reason is financial. On average, it costs more than $20,000 to obtain a U.S. patent and this figure grows significantly when you file around the world. Also, this amount does not include annual annuities required to keep a patent in effect. Being selective in what you patent can result in significant savings. However, the bigger reason for the change is that our focus has shifted from quantity to quality. To this end, we have completely re-architected the manner in which we determine the innovations we will patent. As part of this process, inventions are reviewed by a panel of the chief technology officers from across our different lines of businesses with input from distinguished engineers and other experienced innovators. We apply a significant amount of scrutiny to determine whether something is truly innovative before we submit it to the PTO. For us, it doesn’t make sense to patent everything. Rather, our focus is on patents that represent significant technological innovation. (In this regard, we were happy to see that the Federal Circuit will reconsider the patentability of business methods. )
Aside from our focus on patent quality, there is another reason we are filing fewer patents. It has to do with our business model. Unlike some companies, we don’t have a corporate goal for revenue derived from patents (and patent litigation). Instead, we invest in patents to support our customers and the communities in which we participate. This support can be in the form of a defensive response to an attack on a community or in the form of the assurance provided by the patent licensing provisions of the CDDL or GPLv3. In the end, it’s about delivering innovation to our customers and communities.
If they succeed, we succeed.
I had one of those flashes of insight a few months ago. It occurred while I was fixing a go-kart with my youngest son. He was reinstalling the chain guard and as he did he stopped to ask me which way to turn the screw. I replied in my best Dad voice: “If you’re tightening it, you want to turn it clockwise.” His response floored me. He asked: “what do you mean by ‘clockwise?'”
Now mind you this is a bright young lad with good grades in middle school. Yet, he didn’t understand my reference to the movement of the hands of a clock. At first, I was astounded by this gap in his learning. But, then I realized that he and most of his friends don’t wear watches (they use their cell phones or, more likely, given their age, are indifferent to the concept of time). And when they do wear watches, they are digital – not analog. It was then that I began to lament the advent of the digital age. My fear was that we are raising a world of children who have almost unlimited access to information, yet little ability to use this knowledge to create or repair the tangible. At this point in his life, my son is more familiar with on-line tools than the ones in our garage. And, I’m not sure this is entirely a good thing.
So, I was elated when we recently attended the Maker Faire in San Mateo, California. For those not familiar with the event, it is an outgrowth of Make Magazine, which I can only describe as Popular Science for this millennium. The Maker Faire represents the intersection of science + art + shared knowledge + “using your hands to make stuff”. It has everything including incendiary Burning Man sculptures, Steampunk minibikes, astronomy experiments, a Tesla coil machine, demonstrations on how to retrofit your home for grey water usage, electric powered cupcake cars and, of course, the now ubiquitous Diet Coke + Mentos “experiment.” We wandered around for hours, but next year will be there for the entire weekend.
And, my son even purchased a kit to build a solar powered toy car. It gave me a chance to teach him how to solder…and made me feel a little better.
The handsome guy with the five o’clock shadow seated on the right is my avatar. Someone in Sun’s marketing group created it. And, let me stop right here and give them a big “thanks” for not adding a dorsal shark fin, forked tail or similar appendages. Given the sometimes less than positive public esteem for my profession, someone could have had a lot of fun with this particular assignment.
The reason for the avatar was an internal Sun employee conference held last week in Second Life. The meeting included a number of Sun executives interviewed throughout the day by Chris Mellissinos in our Sun virtual campus. Sun employees were able to attend either in Second Life or to watch and listen to the meeting in progress through a browser window on their desktop
During my session, I spoke a bit about the interesting legal issues raised by some social networking technologies. But most of the conversation was about how these technologies can be a valuable tool for the legal profession. For example, some law schools are already using virtual classrooms for instruction. My team has also been discussing whether this would be a good way to deliver compliance and other training to employees. No doubt there will plenty of future opportunity to use sites like Second Life to enable information sharing within firms, in-house legal departments and between attorneys and clients. But, to be candid, at this stage the virtual experience is not yet compelling. Despite my good looking avatar-self, the overall visual effect is still primitive and coarse and the UI is a barrier. Overall, the experience feels more like participating in a conference call while watching a mid-1960’s cartoon. But one only has to imagine the impact when the bandwidth and rendering capabilities deliver the visual experience found in today’s gaming and movie releases. At that point, people will sense a greater integration between their virtual and “real” identities making these tools more effective.
To some extent this is similar to evolution of the Internet. I still remember using my Mosiac browser at Sun to connect for the first time. I waited for what seemed an interminably long time to download a photograph of a painting in the Louvre. As I watched each row of pixels complete, I thought to myself that at some point this is going to touch every aspect of our lives. And, a little more than a decade later – it does.