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Contact Sebastian Webel
Mr. Sebastian Webel


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Pictures of the Future
The Magazine for Research and Innovation


“We don’t need many patents — we need the right ones”

Beat Weibel is head of Siemens’ Intellectual property department, which has a staff of more than 400 worldwide, making it Germany's largest corporate industrial property rights department. Companies need intelligent patent strategies to benefit from their innovations.

Working closely with researchers is the key to a portfolio that is distinguished not by sheer size but by high quality. Beat Weibel, Head of the Siemens Corporate Intellectual Property department at Corporate Technology, explains how this new patent strategy is helping to improve the value of Siemens’ intellectual property while protecting it more effectively.

More quality than quantity — in other words, Siemens is no longer focusing as much on patent statistics as it used to. Is that how you would sum up your new patent strategy?

Weibel: Yes, because we shouldn’t be looking only at rankings, even though they are important indicators. The number of patent applications alone doesn’t tell us anything about our patent portfolio’s quality.

In addition to patents, what else do you focus on?

Weibel: We are responsible for all of Siemens’ intellectual property rights, or IP. This encompasses patents, trademarks, and name rights, as well as utility models and designs. Our IP strategy rests on three pillars: protection, defense, and exploitation.

How do you protect IP?

Weibel: Siemens invests a lot of money in research and development— around €4.8 billion in fiscal 2016. This money is used to fund the work of our inventors. Innovation is one of our most important success factors. We have to protect these innovations and ensure that competitors can’t simply copy the knowledge and results we’ve gained. To do that, we need to hold the intellectual property rights. They are the key to Siemens’ treasure chest of innovations, which nobody should be able to steal. We have to register our rights at patent offices all over the world to ensure that our intellectual property has the best geographic protection. Ultimately, we don’t need many patents — we need the right ones, and we need them in the right countries.

And how do you make sure this is the case?

Weibel: We do this by registering patents not only for individual technical improvements or details but by going one level higher and increasingly patenting applications and fundamental principles. In this way we can gain more comprehensive protection that competitors can’t bypass. Inventors sometimes don’t see the forest for the trees; they are deeply immersed in their work and are reluctant to regard simple, fundamental ideas as inventions. Our job is to help inventors find ideas that deserve to be protected and then to patent them.

For example?

Weibel: A few months ago, a group of researchers showed me a fantastic new development and proudly reported that they had the drive system, the communications interface, and other components protected in line with patent law. However, they had failed to consider that the device has several innovative applications for which they could have sought patents as well. That’s why it’s very important that our patent attorneys be involved in the innovation process from the very start. Only then can they be sufficiently close to the process to support it and make useful suggestions. As part of this new strategy, our experts now spend much more time with researchers in the labs than was previously the case. To return to your first question, I would also like to point out that it doesn’t bother me if we don’t take first place in the patent rankings. It simply means that we shine elsewhere and that the quality of our patents is increasing.

Siemens invests in research and development – around €4.8 billion in fiscal 2016.

How do you rate the quality of Siemens’ patents?

Weibel: That’s the job of independent companies such as PatentSight. They can rate an entire portfolio on the basis of fixed criteria such as technological relevance, geographic market coverage, and frequency of citations. These assessments show us that the value of all of our patents has recently risen. They have also enabled us to find out that we own a relatively large number of older patents that generate comparatively little value.

Which means…?

Weibel: Which means that we’re dropping them. Siemens has around 32,000 patent families for which patents are pending or have already been granted. A patent family encompasses many individual regional patents, of which we currently own 59,750. We are closely examining our approximately 3,000 older patent families so that we can determine which of them we still need. I think we’ll be able to sort out about half of them and thus save a lot on annual fees.

Are we filing more lawsuits now than in the past to protect our IP?

Weibel: Yes, we’ve had to file more lawsuits due to patent infringement than we used to. But that isn’t the key issue here. Although we generally have to make more active use of our impressive patent portfolio, this doesn’t automatically result in more litigation. We want to give Siemens a reputation for not letting people get away with the unauthorized use of our intellectual property.

Are patent infringement lawsuits now in progress?

Weibel: We are currently conducting a number of minor lawsuits that affect all of our units. We are also addressing product piracy and patent infringement much more aggressively than in the past. In China, for example, we have caused goods to be confiscated about 50 times per year. To do so, we closely examine information about suppliers and retailers, for example, so that we can identify the people who operate behind the scenes.

What defensive measures are you taking?

Weibel: That’s another area where we have to be involved at an earlier stage so that we can rigorously object to obstructive patents or request revocation actions against them. We have to do this especially in areas where our business is doing very well. In such areas, people often think that we don’t have to worry very much about competitors because we are the market leader. But if we neglect to defend our interests here, we may one day lag behind because we failed to act.

More patents are now being applied for in China than in any other country. Does that worry you?

Weibel: No, not really. We are monitoring the market closely. The large number of applications is explained by the fact that companies are mainly submitting applications for utility models or less valuable individual patents. We are proactively and successfully taking action against obstructive intellectual property rights in China. What worries me more is the fact that Chinese competitors are increasingly entering traditional Western markets. This development is also reflected in patent application figures.

After receiving a degree in electrical engineering from ETH Zurich, Beat Weibel focused his work on the legal aspects of inventions and patent registrations. He completed an additional professional qualification as a European patent attorney and subsequently worked at the management level as an intellectual property officer at several European companies. Since 2013 he has been Head of Siemens Corporate Intellectual Property in the Corporate Technology unit of Siemens AG. Here he works with more than 400 colleagues to safeguard the patents, and thus the intellectual property, of Siemens. In addition, Beat Weibel is an authorized lecturer for patent law at ETH Zurich and Zurich University of Applied Sciences. He is a member of the Boards of Trustees of the Max Planck Institute for Innovation and Competition and of INGRES, the Swiss Institute for Intellectual Property Rights.

Interview by Norbert Aschenbrenner