THE BLOG
01/11/2017 10:07 GMT | Updated 01/11/2017 10:07 GMT

To Patent Or Not To Patent

While history is littered with inventors that have failed to capitalise on their ideas, some are simply ahead of their time.

Take the example of Douglas Engelbart. In 1967, he applied to patent a wooden box with two metal wheels that would connect to a computer and help the user position their cursor on a screen. The invention was essentially the first computer mouse and received its patent in 1970. However, he made little in the way of revenue from this invention. It was licenced to Apple Computer for $40,000 - a small amount when you consider how many of these devices have been shipped since. The patent lapsed in 1987 - just at the point where he might have made some serious revenues from his innovation.

For inventors, there is always the dilemma over commercialisation strategies; whether to pursue closed or open innovation. More recently the concept of shareware, freeware and open standards - software that is available to be used by anyone, usually at low or no cost - has helped to grow markets spectacularly. Android - an open operating system for mobile phones, cars, games consoles and televisions - has become the largest operating system in the world with more than two billion monthly active users. Created by Google, the operating system would likely not have grown so quickly had it not been an open system. Much of the software that is installed on computers and apps on smartphones is now free.

Perhaps Sir Tim Berners-Lee conveys the most influential illustration of a decision not to protect an idea. When working at the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (CERN) in the late 1980s, he became frustrated that it was difficult to share computer files. He either had to learn a host of computing languages and programs for each different type of computer or wait to elicit the help of experts on a specific computer to move files from one place to another. Berners-Lee began to work on three techniques (HTML, URL and HTTP) to address this challenge. All three remain the foundations of what we know today as the World Wide Web.

Berners-Lee then had a decision to make - to patent or not to patent. He chose not to do so, believing it was only possible to fully realise the potential of the technology if it was freely available to everyone.

Later Berners-Lee commented: "Had the technology been proprietary, and in my total control, it would probably not have taken off. You can't propose that something be universal and at the same time keep control of it." His decision had profound consequences for the world - according to data from the United Nations and Nielson Online - as more than half of the world's population now uses the internet. Had Berners-Lee's techniques not been available at no cost, it is doubtful that number would be so high. More importantly (for better or worse) his decision has facilitated the sharing of content at no cost across the internet.

Despite spending my working life helping companies protect and make money from ideas, I still admire this decision. As Momofuku Ando, inventor of instant ramen noodles, was quoted as saying; "It would be better to develop as a forest than stand alone as a single tree in a field by maintaining sole control of the technology".

For people that generate ideas, particularly in the internet age, it is worth seriously looking at the trade-off between protection and pace of growth. Some innovations are naturally suited to intellectual property protection, such as new technical ways to achieve something. Others - like the pharmaceutical industry - would never justify the required investment without the protection that the patent system provides. However, in an increasingly digital world many innovators are thinking long and hard about the payoff between bringing something to market quickly in an open way, against protecting ideas. Both have a role and both can be equally effective.