Patents: Why They Matter
By Josh Simons on Dec 11, 2006
For engineers, the patent process may seem to end once a patent has been granted, but that is far from the truth. You inventors should understand that your work and your innovations continue to play important roles for Sun by highlighting Sun as an innovator and through other means.
Patents have traditionally encouraged individuals and organizations to innovate by granting exclusive rights to inventors. Sun has pursued two complementary paths by building both a strong patent portfolio (see the latest IEEE Spectrum patent survey) and by building a strong track record of participation and donation to the open source community. Our patents give us certain rights for our commercial products, but they also play an important defensive role when negotiating patent cross-licensing agreements with other companies.
Over the past year or so, I've been acting as a technical advisor in a series of cross-licensing meetings with another company that will not be named. We've spent considerable time in these meetings discussing patents whose inventors are friends and colleagues of mine at Sun. I thought I'd explain briefly how such meetings work for those not familiar with the process.
In negotiating a cross-licensing agreement, each side seeks to demonstrate to the other the strength of their patent portfolio by mapping one or more of their patents onto the other company's products. For each such attempt, a proof package is presented. The proof package is a set of slides that introduce a patent and the demonstrate in detail how the other company's product(s) implement every element of a representative claim chosen from the patent. To map successfully, all of the multiple elements of the claim must be shown to exist within the product that is alleged to infringe.
Over a series of meetings, rebuttals to proof packages will also be presented. As you'd guess, a rebuttal is an attempt to demonstrate why a previously-presented proof package was incorrect. It might be incorrect due to a misunderstanding of a product's functionality, or due to a demonstration that the product in question was created using prior art.
The aim in these meetings is to score as many credible hits as possible in order to demonstrate the strength and relevance of one's patent portfolio so as to put one's company in a position of strength when negotiating the particulars of the cross-licensing agreement. Patents are the essential bargaining chips in the negotiation.
There's a bit of a MAD flavor to all of this. Hits that map onto a company's products can be expensive, depending on the product and the impacted revenue. The most effective way to neutralize such a situation is by scoring hits in the other direction to achieve a balance of sorts. The logic of this is simple enough: Patents are important as a defensive weapon because without them Sun would be at an extreme disadvantage in situations like these. Basically, if someone is shooting at you, you had better be able to fire back with something of equal or better weight. While the defensive aspect isn't pretty (can't we all just get along?), it is a reality that Sun cannot afford to ignore. It's a tough world out there, boys and girls.