As Washington eyes patent reforms, the imperative to secure intellectual property is driving companies to build up their portfolios.
By Alexander Wolfe
Patents issued this week to Microsoft Corp. and Intel Corp. highlight the intellectual-property imperative that's driving technology powerhouses to aggressively build up their patent portfolios.
Microsoft received U.S. patent 6,886,132 for its method of creating an MHTML file, which is used to attach Web pages to an e-mail message.
Over at Intel, the semiconductor giant was awarded U.S. patent 6,886,180. The invention takes the functions of a standalone, broadband cable-modem and implements them on a personal computer.
The two patents provide just a small snapshot of the innovations the two companies have shepherded through the process at the U.S Patent and Trademark Office. Intel this week received 28 patents, ranging from a novel heatsink assembly to a method for making a photolithography mirror. Microsoft's week saw it snare 13 patents, encompassing inventions from an MPEG sub-sample decoder to a keyboard with an improved numeric section.
For those keeping a scorecard, such activity translates into hefty growth in the respective companies' annual portfolios. Microsoft received 520 patents in 2003 and 659 in 2004. So far this year, it has garnered 176, which puts it on a pace to slightly exceed its total of two years ago.
While software patents have been on the increase, the numbers from hardware-centric Intel dwarf those from Microsoft. Intel earned 1,602 patents in 2003; 1,607 in 2004; and 482 during the first three months of 2005.
Yet the flip-side of such individual successes is an overall patent system that's swamped by too many filings and too little funding. Indeed, Congress is poised to enact legislation to reform the 215-year-old patent process. Both Intel and Microsoft support the reforms, which they say are needed to minimize the potential for abuse of the patent system.
"You have to have a system that actively benefits innovation," David Simon, Intel's chief patent attorney, said in an interview. "You have to ask whether models that were originally developed going back into the 1600s needs changing. Will the legislative reforms that we're advocating go a long way towards helping things? We think that they will."
Specifically, Simon, who testified Monday before the Senate Judiciary Committee's intellectual-property subcommittee, is seeking reforms which will cut down on poor-quality patents. He also wants to reduce the number of cases brought by companies he said are looking for a quick buck by acquiring patents and then seeking settlements from those they claim are infringing. Simon testified as a representative of the Business Software Alliance; along with Intel and Microsoft, that industry lobbying group counts among its members Adobe, Apple, Dell, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Sybase, and Symantec.
Simon believes legislation will emerge from Congress in the next year or two "We're playing a very active role in that debate," he said. "It's a very hot issue right now in Congress."