American Airlines won a patent this year for technology that sends data to passengers' mobile devices while they're aboard a plane. Lanza wonders whether the patent may be an example of buried innovation. "If the steps in the claim take place on a server in a data center somewhere," he asks, "how is American ever going to know [if] its patent is infringed?"
American declines to comment on that invention, but CIO Maya Leibman says patents generally are part of the airline's competitive advantage. "We are leveraging internal intellectual capital to come up with business solutions that provide the best possible experience for our customers," she says.
An effective patent strategy must also include monitoring what rivals and other companies file. American, for example, patted itself on the back in a recent employee memo for winning more patents than any other major airline. Watching the intellectual capital moves of competitors is critical for staying ahead, says LeClaire from Humana. This knowledge influences new product ideas and launches and potential acquisitions, he says. Patent strategy "permeates the broad sweeps of what we do as companies."
Lanza compares patent decisions to the game of chess. "You're trying to figure out what you're doing, what your competitor is doing, how to get around that, and whether, in the end, your invention still has value to the company."
Some inventions appear to be obvious, but in the nuanced realm of patent law, they're different enough to merit protection. Allstate was recently granted a family of three patents for customizable insurance, each of which covers related but different aspects of the invention.
Patenting a family of inventions protects you better than getting a single patent, says Lunt, who helps PARC formulate patent strategy. PARC works with clients such as Procter & Gamble and BASF to develop inventions that may be patented and also licenses patents to other companies. Owning a patent family, she says, "makes it harder for someone to peel out a piece of the technology and lock you out of some application of your idea."