If you ask me

US courts have upheld an intellectual property principle dating back to the nineteenth century. Also, how high fuel prices can drive innovation.

IP status quo restored

Technology manufacturers will be breathing a sigh of relief following a recent ruling by the US Supreme Court which can only be described as common sense.

The ruling rejected a claim by LG Electronics that it should retain the rights to patent protection after licensing its technology to a third party, Intel. LG Electronics claimed that its rights were infringed when Quanta Computer used the Intel technology in the production of a laptop computer, despite the fact that Intel had paid for the original technology fairly and squarely.

This ruling upholds an established intellectual property principle from the 1800s - the principle that rights previously held on a product are exhausted at the point of sale.

In short, LG Electronics didn't have a leg to stand on, according to the accepted tenet of intellectual property law. The only surprise, if there is one, is that the case reached the point of appeal in the first place.

In fact, the claim was based on a number of issues, one of which centred on who was the first user. Imagine, for example, a car manufacturer selling a vehicle containing an innovative technology, to a distributor. The distributor then sells the car on. The claim in this case was that the car maker should retain the right to claim that the new owner is a 'primary infringer' of the technology, because they use it first. You would be right in thinking that such a claim would be ill-judged and could be viewed as an unreasonable attempt by the manufacturer to exploit their monopoly rights at the expense of the marketplace they are serving.

While the court decided to reject a similar claim made by LG Electronics, what would have happened if the ruling had gone the other way? It could have opened the floodgates to a series of backdated copycat claims brought by original equipment manufacturers, who have licensed their developments to third parties. This would have extended the rights of the patent holder significantly. Manufacturers may also argue that such a decision would have the effect of holding back progress, by preventing innovations from rolling out as quickly as they otherwise might to end-user applications.

Technology manufacturers shouldn't be put off from making license agreements as a result of this ruling - far from it. License agreements remain a great way for innovators to cash-in on their R&D investment, as long as the agreement they secure gives them sufficient value.

However, it is important to remember that license agreements only happen because third party companies find out about an invention that has been patented and want to use it. The first step for any innovator must therefore be to seek patent protection every time.

The US Supreme Court ruling is a victory for common sense - ensuring that the rights of first- and second-tier manufacturers as well as end-users are protected, while checking the rights of monopoly-holders.

Karl Barnfather is a patent attorney at patent and trademark attorneys Withers & Rogers LLP

High fuel prices can drive innovation

If the UK government has any realistic ambition to come to grips with meeting its obligation to lower carbon emissions it must make some difficult decisions in its transport policy.

Road transport accounts for 80 per cent of transport emissions and needs urgent attention, while the fastest growing sector - despite fuel prices - is air transport.

Take the use of our roads, where there appears to be no cure on the horizon. The Greens may preach about greater use of bikes, public transport and Shanks' pony. But, unless you live in a large city, with its associated public transport infrastructure, these methods are more or less non-starters.

It appears that even the government is coming face-to-face with the reality that the motorcar is here to stay. So, what are the options? First hydrogen, then hybrids and, more latterly, biofuels were the panacea that governments sought, but all have fallen well short of the mark. The latest star pupil is the electric car, but that too is likely to run out of steam - or, more aptly, electric power - before the finishing line.

The hydrogen fuel cell car offers more significant - but still distant - prospects. Among the key challenges are its high cost per unit of energy and the lack of a supply of renewable hydrogen, and that is before you come to the 'chicken and egg' quandary of supplying a refuelling infrastructure and a range of affordable vehicles.

You only have to look at the negligible success of the hybrid to see what sort of trouble each new technology faces. Despite its proven technology, the take-up has been lacklustre as consumers have shown reluctance to foot the bill for being green - adoption of hybrids is still short of 0.5 per cent.

The latest plan for electric cars being generated by Prime Minister Gordon Brown is a 'pay as you drive' scheme, similar to mobile phone contracts. Under this scheme, users would receive a highly subsidised - or free - electric car in exchange for buying the power required for use from a particular supplier. The scheme is already a success in Denmark and Israel, and offers interesting opportunities.

It seems that the way forward will be to take several steps back. Developments of modern vehicle platforms offer over 50 per cent fuel economy savings, but again all at a huge cost. Improvements in aerodynamics, use of lightweight materials, engine and transmission developments, and further hybridisation, particularly for diesels, will all add up to excellent savings, but at an estimated cost of $6,000 per car. So again, will we pay the extra? Probably not.

For now, the options are few. Small, lightweight, efficient and cheap vehicles such as the Nano, diesel hybrids like the Citroen C4, and efficient family cars in the vein of the Ford Econetic, with its 115g/km emission figure go some way towards easing the carbon emission. While the industry looks long and hard for the successor to the internal combustion engine, they need to carry on investing in innovation on cars of today and, perversely, its greatest ally in this battle may be the demand for fuel efficiency created by the high petrol prices that are causing so much consternation.

Mark Venables, Power Editor 
Follow Mark's regular 'Power Ranger' industry commentary blog on the IET website at http://kn.theiet.org/power/index.cfm

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