Working closely with researchers is the key to a portfolio that is distinguished not only by sheer size but by high quality. Beat Weibel, Head of the Siemens Corporate Intellectual Property department at Corporate Technology, explains how the patent strategy is helping to improve the value of Siemens’ intellectual property while protecting it more effectively.
by Norbert Aschenbrenner
Siemens submitted more patent applications than any other company in Europe in 2018. Nevertheless, the company is focusing more quality than quantity. Is that how you would sum-up your patent strategy?
Weibel: Yes. Even though we are number one in the European Patent Office’s application rankings for 2018. The ranking proves that Siemens is continually and consistently delivering outstanding innovation work. Nevertheless, we shouldn’t be looking only at rankings, even though they are important indicators. The number of patent applications alone doesn’t tell us anything about our patent portfolio’s quality.
In addition to patents, what else do you focus on?
Weibel: We are responsible for all of Siemens’ intellectual property rights, or IP. This encompasses patents, trademarks, and name rights, as well as utility models and designs. Our IP strategy rests on three pillars: protection, defense, and exploitation.
How do you protect IP?
Weibel: Siemens invests a lot of money in research and development— around €5.6 billion in fiscal 2018. This money is used to fund the work of our inventors. Innovation is one of our most important success factors. We have to protect these innovations and ensure that competitors can’t simply copy the knowledge and results we’ve gained. To do that, we need to hold the intellectual property rights. They are the key to Siemens’ treasure chest of innovations, which nobody should be able to steal. We have to register our rights at patent offices all over the world to ensure that our intellectual property has the best geographic protection. Ultimately, we don’t need many patents — we need the right ones, and we need them in the right countries.
And how do you make sure this is the case?
Weibel: We do this by registering patents not only for individual technical improvements or details but by going one level higher and increasingly patenting applications and fundamental principles. In this way we can gain more comprehensive protection that competitors can’t bypass. Inventors sometimes don’t see the forest for the trees; they are deeply immersed in their work and are reluctant to regard simple, fundamental ideas as inventions. Our job is to help inventors find ideas that deserve to be protected and then to patent them.
Weibel: A few months ago, a group of researchers showed me a fantastic new development and proudly reported that they had the drive system, the communications interface, and other components protected in line with patent law. However, they had failed to consider that the device has several innovative applications for which they could have sought patents as well. That’s why it’s very important that our patent attorneys be involved in the innovation process from the very start. Only then can they be sufficiently close to the process to support it and make useful suggestions. As part of this new strategy, our experts now spend much more time with researchers in the labs than was previously the case. To return to your first question, I would also like to point out that it doesn’t bother me if we don’t take first place in the patent rankings. It simply means that we shine elsewhere and that the quality of our patents is increasing.
Siemens invests in research and development – around €5.6 billion in fiscal 2018.
How do you rate the quality of Siemens’ patents?
Weibel: That’s the job of independent companies such as PatentSight. They can rate an entire portfolio on the basis of fixed criteria such as technological relevance, geographic market coverage, and frequency of citations. These assessments show us that the value of all of our patents has recently risen. They have also enabled us to find out that we own a relatively large number of older patents that generate comparatively little value.
Weibel: Which means that we’re dropping them. Siemens has more than 65,000 patents. We are closely examining them so that we can determine which of them we still need.
Are we filing more lawsuits now than in the past to protect our IP?
Weibel: Yes, we’ve had to file more lawsuits due to patent infringement than we used to. But that isn’t the key issue here. Although we generally have to make more active use of our impressive patent portfolio, this doesn’t automatically result in more litigation. We want to give Siemens a reputation for not letting people get away with the unauthorized use of our intellectual property.
Are patent infringement lawsuits now in progress?
Weibel: We are currently conducting a number of minor lawsuits that affect all of our units. We are also addressing product piracy and patent infringement much more aggressively than in the past. In China, for example, we have caused goods to be confiscated about 50 times per year. To do so, we closely examine information about suppliers and retailers, for example, so that we can identify the people who operate behind the scenes.
What defensive measures are you taking?
Weibel: That’s another area where we have to be involved at an earlier stage so that we can rigorously object to obstructive patents or request revocation actions against them. We have to do this especially in areas where our business is doing very well. In such areas, people often think that we don’t have to worry very much about competitors because we are the market leader. But if we neglect to defend our interests here, we may one day lag behind because we failed to act.
More patents are now being applied for in China than in any other country. Does that worry you?
Weibel: No, not really. We are monitoring the market closely. The large number of applications is explained by the fact that companies are mainly submitting applications for utility models or less valuable individual patents. We are proactively and successfully taking action against obstructive intellectual property rights in China. What worries me more is the fact that Chinese competitors are increasingly entering traditional Western markets. This development is also reflected in patent application figures.
After receiving his degree in electrical engineering from ETH Zurich, Beat Weibel devoted himself to the legal aspects of inventions and the granting of patents. After completing additional professional qualifications as a European patent attorney and LL.M., he worked in management positions as a patent attorney at a variety of European companies. Since 2013, Weibel has been the Head of Intellectual Property at Siemens Corporate Technology, where he and his team of more than 400 employees safeguard Siemens’ patents and thus its intellectual property. For many years, Beat Weibel also held lectures on patent law at ETH Zurich and the Zurich University of Applied Sciences. He is a member of the Board of Trustees of the Max Planck Institute for Innovation and Competition as well as a member of the Board of Trustees of INGRES (the Swiss institute for commercial legal protection) and of GRUR and VPP. In addition, he is President of the Dachverband der europäischen Industriepatentanwälte (umbrella organization of European industrial patent lawyers).
Interview by Norbert Aschenbrenner
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