Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Toyota: peace, not war

Here's a guest post from Nigel Swycher (founder and CEO of AISTEMOS) and a keen observer of the patent scene.  Writes Nigel:
Toyota: peace, not war 
Is it just me, or are patents now a mainstream business issue?
Last week’s announcement by Toyota is a perfect illustration of the trend.  They have proudly announced that more than 5,600 fuel cell and related patents are available for royalty-free use.  There is no absence of detail: 1,970 patents related to fuel cell stacks, 290 are associated with high-pressure hydrogen tanks, 3,350 cover fuel cell software and 70 govern production and supply.
This is fascinating stuff, and it is the same genre as Tesla's open sourcing of its battery patents.
The commercial backdrop of both of these announcements is exactly the same.  How do you persuade industry to enhance new technology?  Both Toyota and Tesla know that there is no future for hydrogen or battery powered cars unless there are (a) lots of cars and (b) requiring refilling stations.
This is familiar territory and heralds the development of new standards.  These standards will either be free (such as Bluetooth and W3C) or royalty-bearing (the FRAND licensing associated with ETSI mobile standards).  In the context, Toyota may not have had much choice.  If battery technology is to be available royalty-free, could hydrogen fuel cell technology really be royalty-bearing? 
What is just as interesting as Toyota’s announcement was that it was made in its flagship CES 2015  presentation. Looking through other CES announcements highlights the technology theme.  There are almost as many announcements from Google, Nvidia and Qualcomm as from Audi and VW (focusing on self-drive and gesture-controlled vehicles).
'Phones on wheels' ... 
For the automotive sector, the way the way forward is clear.  Cars are now pure technology play.  As one analyst reported, cars are transforming into "phones on wheels". There are many other sectors that are following suit. Samsung’s focus at CES was on the internet of things and sweeping statements that, in the next two years, 90% of their devices will be part of their “internet of things strategy”. The future looks highly similar for banks where online and mobile is changing everything. 
If technology is really taking over all aspects of our lives, it is no surprise that the intellectual property issues and tensions that have dominated the horizon for mobile phones and tablets (the so-called patent wars) will soon spread into other sectors that have to this point not had to concern themselves with patents. 
Times are certainly changing and any company that does not have an IP strategy as part of its business strategy is going to be significantly disadvantaged. 
No reader of this blog is likely to argue with the proposition that a business shorn of IP policy will be disadvantaged. However, there is plenty of room for discussion as to whether Toyota's decision is the correct one and, if it is, whether its impact has been diminished by the sudden drop in oil prices.  Comments?

Footnote: there's a handy and accessible Aistemos Cipher snapshot of the fuel cell patent landscape that you can peruse here.

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