Some of the mobile, social networking and analytics patents granted during this flurry won't withstand challenges by competitors, either in court or at the United States Patent and Trademark Office itself, under new laws that took effect in September. During the previous Web patent rush, courts crackled with lawsuits challenging "business method" patents that covered ways of performing a common task that critics said were too broad to be patented. Then-newcomers Priceline and Expedia, for example, sued each other several times, and Amazon's controversial patent on "1-Click" ordering was challenged and re-examined for years before the patent office confirmed it once and for all in 2010. While some of today's patents may fall, others will hold. That leaves CIOs under pressure to devise defensive and offensive patent strategies to keep and create competitive advantage, says Teresa Lunt, VP and director of the computing science laboratory at Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), a for-profit R&D company owned by Xerox.
"You have to make those land grabs before you're even sure what you're going to do," Lunt says. "If you wait until you're certain of all the business analysis, someone else has grabbed the space."
Why Seek a Patent?
Furthering corporate goals is the number-one reason to patent anything, whether the objectives are financial, strategic or competitive, says Brian LeClaire, CIO and chief service officer at Humana, a $36.8 billion health insurance company. "To remain competitive, intellectual property becomes an important differentiator," LeClaire says.
Among the eight patents Humana won this year are ones for a team fitness game, which is now a product, and one for an online health game, which isn't yet available to customers. Humana's patents for methods of predicting health, which were granted in 2010, took six years to get. The technologies are now used internally as part of services offered to customers.
Exclusive patent rights are good for 20 years from the date of application. On average, it takes the patent office about three years to make a final decision on an application, so the effective life of protection is about 17 years. After that, anyone can use the patented concepts.