Consumers understand that IP is the key to innovation

December 2014

By Don Rosenberg, Executive Vice President and General Counsel, Qualcomm Incorporated, USA

The state of innovation in our global economy is strong. For now.

Around the world, everyone loves and praises innovation. Corporations and governments, marketers and educators, promote it as the key to survival and prosperity. For consumers, it is the catalyst for individual product purchases that in total add up to swings in the gross domestic product of one economy or another. It is the key ingredient driving the following questions: is this product or service new-and-improved enough to make my life better or easier? Is it superior to rival products or services? Is it worth more of my money?

Cars, home appliances, information and entertainment electronics, business equipment, clothing – name almost any industrial sector and you will find rivals trying to out-innovate each other and repeatedly offering accolades to the power of “innovation.”

But some kinds of innovation affect human lives more than others.

A dynamic the consumer rarely thinks about but that governments must consider is that the most exceptional kind of innovation, the result of inspiration and hard work and significant investments of time, money or both, can earn what is sometimes considered a more venerated name: invention.

What it takes to incentivize invention

Yet far too many policymakers have forgotten what it takes to incentivize the hard work, investment and creativity that bring new inventions to life. Even as we celebrate the merits of innovation and laud the growing significance of a knowledge-based economy, it has become too easy to take for granted the legal and economic frameworks that made the technological wonders of modern life possible.

Take the mobile phone, which was found to be the most useful invention of all time by more than 70 percent of respondents to a recent global poll published in TIME magazine. Today’s smartphone, in fact, is not just one invention but the product of hundreds if not thousands of them. Every week, it seems, new smartphones appear that have their own unique features that we, as consumers, value. And the marketplace is the metric we use to measure which feature is most preferred or which manufacturer does a nicer job designing it. Sometimes a new function wins consumers' hearts, and sometimes it's an original form -- the look, the feel, the buttons -- and sometimes it's a combination of the two. We base our decisions on these distinctions.

But what about the science and engineering that make smartphones possible in the first place, that allow hundreds of millions of people at any given moment to converse with friends located anywhere in the world or to call up key business data or download a hit song or video -- all using the same spectrum that less than two decades ago was limited to carrying a limited number of expensive, frequently interrupted voice calls? This is what I mean by invention. And as the general counsel of Qualcomm, whose inventions empower this technology, I take pride in describing them.

But I am a fan of invention far beyond the fields of communications technology.

(Charts: TIME Magazine)

Invention is endemic

Invention is endemic to the human spirit, and the history of both anonymous and famous inventors is interwoven in the history of humankind. We are unique as a species in part because we have the means to discover how we can live better, happier, healthier lives. This has taken us from the wheel to the airplane, from the light bulb to the radio telescope, from the telegraph to the smartphone, and from penicillin to what we hope will be viable treatments for Ebola.

And if policy makers sometimes forget how we managed to rapidly accelerate that pace of invention over the past two centuries, I’m pleased to report many consumers and business leaders around the world have not.

Nearly 85 percent of the consumers who responded to the TIME poll said they think we live in an age of invention, and a vast majority said the more their country supports invention the more their country will thrive economically.

Consumers recognize the IP plays a key role

What I found even more fascinating is the sophistication of survey respondents in their recognition that the key to this support is protection of intellectual property (IP). The poll found patents are considered crucial for the invention process because they offer the best incentive for inventors to create something new and useful and the only guarantee that inventors and their financial backers will recoup and profit from their invested time and money. Among the global business decision-makers surveyed, 84 percent said they want stronger IP protection , and respondents in emerging-market economies -- expressing envy for the strong patent systems of industrial nations -- were the most likely to seek stronger IP rights and the promotion of economic equality that comes with them.

Patents are necessary for invention

Worldwide, 90 percent of consumers said patents are necessary to promote invention.

The reasoning behind these poll results is clear: recognition that a patent represents a rule-of-law promise that for a limited time any inventor, large or small, owns the invention she or he has worked hard to create.

I make no secret of my interest in the public debate involving patents. Qualcomm would never have been able to create and then constantly advance the technologies empowering the world’s wireless ecosystem without patents.

The revolutionary technologies we brought to market two decades ago were met with derision and commercial resistance from much of the wireless industry. Yet we were able to reassure our early investors with the promise that our patents would protect their investments. Now we are a company that employs more than 30,000 people - mostly engineers developing the next generation of mobile communications - as we continue to work collaboratively with nearly the entire wireless industry. Our patents allow us to keep introducing transformative technologies in ways that promote competition among handset makers and lower prices for consumers.

Patents are the key ingredient of our virtuous circle of investment in research and development, invention, licensing our invented technologies, and plugging much of that licensing revenue back into more research and development, which in turn produces new inventions. Patents allow us to take the risks of trying to do what no one has done before and to fail plenty of times until we succeed, because we know success will be rewarded.

This invention and innovation environment could be put at risk by some commercial interests and misguided government agencies whose goal is to weaken patent rights. They have a disregard for patents or a lack of understanding of patents’ value that, as we see in the TIME poll, contrasts with the broader recognition of how vital patents are and have been to technological and societal progress.

It is time IP policy makers take a step back and consider what respondents to the TIME poll already appreciate: patents have made possible so much that we value in contemporary life, and the unintended consequences of weakening patent rights will be the loss of new innovations and new inventions that could have made a difference in our lives.

The WIPO Magazine is intended to help broaden public understanding of intellectual property and of WIPO’s work, and is not an official document of WIPO. The designations employed and the presentation of material throughout this publication do not imply the expression of any opinion whatsoever on the part of WIPO concerning the legal status of any country, territory or area or of its authorities, or concerning the delimitation of its frontiers or boundaries. This publication is not intended to reflect the views of the Member States or the WIPO Secretariat. The mention of specific companies or products of manufacturers does not imply that they are endorsed or recommended by WIPO in preference to others of a similar nature that are not mentioned.