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sts.components.contact.mr.placeholder Sebastian Webel
Mr. Sebastian Webel

Editor-in-Chief

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Pictures of the Future
The Magazine for Research and Innovation
 

Innovations

Patents: The Business of Defending Ideas

Compared to ten years ago, Siemens now receives twice as many reports of inventions, on average, from each of its R&D employees. Beat Weibel (right) manages a staff of around 400 at Germany’s largest corporate intellectual property rights department.

Many of Siemens’ most valuable assets are not real estate, machines, or even factories, but intellectual property. Protecting this property is one of the primary responsibilities of more than 400 experts at Corporate Technology

In terms of external appearances, the offices of Beat Weibel and his team don't look very different from those of the Finance Department. The work done in them is similar too, because his team also deals with company assets. But Weibel’s experts are not concerned with financial assets, holdings in companies, real estate, buildings or machines. Instead, their business is intellectual property (IP). Weibel manages a staff of more than 400 at Germany’s largest corporate intellectual property rights department. Capitalizing on technological innovations isn't a trivial matter. Protecting them is expensive, and to do so companies need a sound patent strategy.

In fiscal 2016, Siemens employees reported 7,513 inventions within the company itself, and Beat Weibel's team submitted approximately 3,500 initial patent applications. Based on 220 working days in a year, this represents about 34 inventions and 16 initial patent applications per day. Overall, the Siemens Group now holds approximately 59,750 patents. Compared to ten years ago, the Group receives twice as many reports of inventions, on average, from each of the employees in Research and Development — in large part because of the excellent level of cooperation between patent attorneys and inventors.

At the European Patent Office, Germany ranks third in terms of the number of applications filed, behind the U.S. and Japan.

One of Siemens’ most prolific inventors is Professor Maximilian Fleischer. He is considered to be one of the world’s top sensor experts and is the coinventor of 218 patent families and 844 individual patents.

Simon Ahlers is one of the legal experts on Siemens’ IP team. A patent attorney who used to do research on sensors, Ahlers is familiar not only with the legal aspects of his field but also with its technologies. As such, he is a good example of Siemens’ strategy of supporting each inventor with a patent attorney who has experience in the same field. This is the only way that patent experts can achieve broad and meaningful protection for inventions.

In addition to analyzing state-of-the-art technologies and competitors’ patent situations, they organize "invention-on-demand" workshops in which participants look specifically for patentable developments in current subjects of interest. Weibel calls this "turning the attention of inventors to areas where the wheels haven't been invented yet."

"In China there are now consulting centers that provide support for transactions with intellectual property."

Fast-tracking Great Ideas

But what is a good idea? What kinds of things can actually be patented? "An idea has to have a certain flair," says Ahlers. And it has to be new. In other words, it has to go beyond the current state of the art. It must not have been published yet, and it should have commercial utility. This applies to materials and machines, operating procedures, business methods, software, and algorithms. As soon as a developer reports an invention, patent attorneys search the databases of the world's patent offices to determine whether anyone else on our interconnected planet has already had the same idea. Ultimately, a committee decides whether the potential product is worth the expense and effort of applying for a patent.

Beat Weibel, head of Siemens’ Intellectual property department:

Submitting a Patent Doesn’t Always Make Sense

A patent application isn't always submitted quickly, and sometimes it isn't submitted at all — for example, if doing so would be too expensive. Various important criteria must be taken into consideration — for example, the question of how many countries it should be registered in. Internal costs accrue from the moment a patent is filed to the date on which it is granted. In addition, there are the costs for the application, the checking process, and annual fees. At the DPMA, for example, initial charges amount to about €500. These are followed by steadily rising annual fees. Furthermore, since patent registration at the DPMA provides protection only in Germany, additional registration costs for other commercially relevant countries are required. Considered over the maximum 20-year lifespan of a patent, total charges can amount to about €100,000.

When it Makes Sense to Keep a Secret

Because applying for a patent means disclosing it, experts carefully decide how to achieve the best protection; sometimes Siemens simply keeps new software or a certain production process under wraps as a trade secret. And shouldn’t the company be especially careful with applications in countries such as China, where there’s a likelihood of product piracy and improper use of intellectual property?

"Not necessarily," says Dr. Oliver Pfaffenzeller, a patent attorney and expert on Chinese law at Siemens. As it turns out, in recent years intellectual property rights have become much more effective in China, which has adopted Germany’s strict patent system as its model. “This is particularly true with regard to the granting of patents," says Pfaffenzeller. "In infringement law, the Chinese have based their approach to some extent on that of the U.S."

But key patents are more than a means of protecting innovations. When properly managed, they can be used against competitors and can make it possible to legally challenge potential imitators. Moreover, licensing agreements with other companies can make intellectual property rights the equivalent of a currency. "In China there are now consulting centers that provide support for transactions with intellectual property," says Pfaffenzeller.

At the European Patent Office, China ranks fourth in terms of the number of applications filed, behind the U.S., Japan, and Germany. In the increasingly intense competition for technological advantages, it is thus becoming more important for German companies to protect their innovations in China so that they can defend their IP and avoid falling behind in global research.

Norbert Aschenbrenner