The Economist is a London-based newspaper published weekly which has long fought on behalf of free trade issues across the globe since its founding in 1843. The publication’s goal is clearly stated on the contents page of every edition it prints: to “take part in a severe contest between intelligence, which presses forward, and an unworthy, timid ignorance obstructing our progress.”
It is with a collegial atmosphere that today, we offer to do The Economist’s job for them by pointing out some inconsistencies in its own stance on patent rights, an opinion which may be seeking to obstruct our progress. If you perform a Google search of the terms “patents” and “The Economist,” it is not hard to tell that the magazine feels that patents do more harm than good. Most recently, the publication ran an opinion piece titled A question of utility, an article that contained many falsehoods which Gene Quinn rebutted on a point-by-point basis soon after here on IPWatchdog.
It’s not simply that The Economist is flat wrong about the use of patents during the Industrial Revolution, along with other points. It’s possible that the newspaper’s entire point of view on patent systems in general represents a major misunderstanding of the newspaper’s own financial situation. To wit: The majority shareholder of The Economist Group, the company responsible for publication of The Economist, owns patents.
In fact, this summer, majority ownership of The Economist moves from one patent holder to another with a much larger portfolio. Near the middle of August, British education and publishing company Pearson PLC (NYSE:PSO) sold its 50 percent non-controlling stake in the Economist Group and most of it was snapped up by Exor SpA (BIT:EXO), the investment division of the family that both founded Fiat Automobiles and still holds a large interest in the recently formed Fiat Chrysler Auto (NYSE:FCAU). It seems very odd to us that most of the shareholder capital going into a publication that decries patents is coming from organizations who aggressively protect their own innovations through patents.
Pearson’s Patent Portfolio: From Streamlined Electronic Exams to Better Whiteboard Tutorials
Pearson holds a patent portfolio of 133 active patent, according to patent portfolio analysis tools made available through Innography. The vast majority of these active patents have been issued by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, which has granted Pearson 120 U.S. patent grants. As the text cluster here shows us, many of these technologies are focused on compilation of test answers and electronic syllabi as well as other testing technologies. One has to wonder whether The Economist has the same dim view of Pearson’s patents, or whether their editorial viewpoint is such that only the patents of others are problematic.
Most recently, Pearson was issued a patent for a technology designed to streamline the process of taking a test electronically and communicating responses to teachers. U.S. Patent No. 9105194, entitled Semi-Network Independent Educational Electronic Exam Engine and issued on August 11th, claims a system for administering academic examinations and conditioning transmission of examination responses upon assessing a connection in a process that involves the delayed transmission of student exam response data until a time-based transmission condition is satisfied. This system, which caches an electronic examination on a proctor device which then transmits the test file to student user devices at exam time, reduces the processing load of a central server during peak times for test taking.
Data privacy on educational servers is also a research and development topic for Pearson, to judge by this March’s issue of U.S. Patent No. 8984650, which is titled Privacy Server for Protecting Personally Identifiable Information. The patent protects a method of protecting personally identifiable information (PII) transmitted in an educational environment which involves determining the presence of PII in communication content and creating a PII identifier consisting of a string of code which is substituted for the PII in any secondary communications. The patent description describes this system’s usefulness in complying with Canadian provincial laws pertaining to PII that may be held on servers operated in America by Pearson.
Last September, Pearson protected an innovation it pursued in order to remove frustration from the educational process for motivated learners who want to take on more academic challenges through the issue of U.S. Patent No. 8838518, titled Educational Querying Processing Based on Detected Course Enrollment and Course-Relevant Query Time. It discloses a computer-implemented method for using educational contexts for learners to adjust processing of search queries by identifying a course in which the user is enrolled, receiving a search query from the user, identifying a portion of the syllabus for the enrolled course, determining content objects from the syllabus and generating a query
result that identifies the content object as responsive to the query. This technology ensures that search results for courses are relevant to other courses being taken by the user as parsing through large amounts of irrelevant search results can be frustrating.
Pearson is also developing more effective tutorial materials for digital whiteboard educational technologies, as is reflected by the November 2014 issue of U.S. Patent No. 8887046, which is titled Whiteboard Presentation of Interactive and Expandable Modular Content. The system for creating an interactive expandable multimedia tutorial claimed here includes a processor which accesses a plurality of tutorial elements and determines branching points which associates a first tutorial element with other elements in such a way that allows a user to request a secondary associated tutorial element which is superimposed over a video tutorial. This system is intended to enable more interaction between whiteboard operators and tutorial information so as to better answer their questions during tutorials.
Fiat Chrysler’s Patent Portfolio: Strong Holdings in Automotive Include Electric Vehicles, Releasable Windshields
If Pearson perhaps dabbled with IP protection, the new majority shareholder in the Economist Group is gripped by a torrid love affair with patent systems around the world. Data culled from Innography shows that British-based Fiat Chrysler Automobiles N.V. holds a portfolio of 7,339 active patent grants and another 3,386 active patent applications. So far in 2015, Fiat and its subsidiaries had been issued a total of 135 U.S. patents, already far exceeding the total holdings of Pearson. A text cluster of Fiat’s 3,320 active U.S. patents show us that the new majority owners of The Economist have been busy patenting technologies related mostly to motor vehicles and internal combustion engines.
In any event, some of the inventions protected by patents recently issued to companies in the Fiat Chrysler family were related to fuel efficiency and emissions standards. U.S. Patent No. 8977478, which is titled Method of Setting a Control Parameter for Emissions Robustness, protects a method of setting a control parameter in an automobile engine by inputting a first set of sensor data into an engine control unit (ECU), calculating a value based on the data which indicates a first level of ECU correction for maintaining a predetermined combustion level, inputting a second set of sensor data indicating a second level of ECU correction and setting a control parameter based on the comparison of the two determined levels. This innovation is designed to enable alternate states of ECU performance when those alternate states would be preferable over default states in terms of emissions output.
Systems for evaluating the carbon dioxide emissions of vehicles are at the center of U.S. Patent No. 9082243, which is titled Fuel Saving-Aimed Motor Vehicle Driving Style Evaluation. The driving style evaluation system protected by this patent includes a processor that computes a driving style evaluation index indicative of a driver’s vehicle driving style from a fuel consumption perspective with the use of a fuel economy index constructed from sensor data about vehicle operation. This innovation is designed to encourage drivers to forego aggressive driving and other behaviors which can lead to excessive fuel consumption.
Electric vehicles are a topic of focus from time to time on this blog and we were intrigued to see Ferrari, a member of the FCA family, obtaining U.S. Patent No. 9102222, issued under the title Vehicle with Electric Propulsion. It protects a vehicle with electric propulsion with a motor propulsion system and a system for the storage of electric energy comprised of a pack of chemical batteries connected in series and in parallel, each battery having a safety valve and an outlet duct connecting the safety valve to a corresponding evacuation opening through a bottom panel of a vehicle. This chemical battery configuration is intended to reduce energy loss suffered through thermal drift.
A patent assigned to FCA US reflecting an innovation that might resonate with those drivers who have a true taste for the open road was issued by the USPTO in early July. U.S. Patent No. 9073411, which is titled Releasably Mounted Automotive Windshield, claims a releasably mounted windshield assembly for a vehicle having both a passenger compartment and a hood, the windshield assembly having lower and upper edges creating a frame that is releasably coupled to a vehicle and carrying a transparent pane as well as a control mechanism with a pivot that allows a windshield to move relative to the vehicle. It’s not clear why this innovation was pursued but it may give some drivers the chance to feel the wind whipping in their face.
Safety concerns during impact events are a major motivator for the FCA tech protected by U.S. Patent No. 9033093, which is titled Impact Sensitive Latch Actuation Link for Vehicle Door. This patent protects an apparatus comprising a latch mechanism movable to both allow and restrict movement of a vehicle door relative to a vehicle frame, an actuator that can cause corresponding movement of the latch mechanism, an actuation link interconnection the actuator and the latch mechanism and a retainer engaging first and second portions of the actuation link which is breakable to disconnect the first and second portions of the actuation link. The innovation is intended to prevent the unwanted opening of car doors during an impact event.
Finally, we note a Chrysler Group innovation in the field of semi-trailer trucks which we noted in U.S. Patent No. 8998292, issued under the title Front Air Dam for Truck. It discloses an air dam for a semi-truck tractor which has a rigid upper panel affixed to a semi-truck tractor’s bumper and a lower flexible panel affixed to the upper panel as well as a plurality of E-shaped stiffeners fastened to the inner sides of both the upper and lower panels deployed to increase the rigidity of the flexible panel. The use of the flexible panel reduces the amount of damage sustained by road impacts on a truck air dam, which is used to reduce aerodynamic drag on semi-trailer truck.
Those who have followed The Economist know that the magazine hasn’t been a champion of the patent system. But how and why The Economist published such complete and utter nonsense in its August 8th edition remains a mystery. It is outright false to say that patents played no role in advancement during the Industrial Revolution. It is even more ridiculous to claim patents played no role in the development of steam engines. Yet, these and other false claims were made, all without citation, as if they were actually true.
If you do a quick survey across the Internet you see that those praising the article all remark about how terrific and well researched the article was, as if they were reading from the same talking points. Perhaps the article was a terrific piece of fiction, but certainly no self respecting journalist or columnist would ever author such fantastical garbage. Thankfully for the author it was published anonymously, but that only adds to the mystery. Why would The Economist publish these lies and who was responsible?
This latest Economist episode has to raise an eyebrow, particularly as the U.S. Congress is soon set to return from the long August recess. Was this Economist article planted with the express purpose of breathing life into what is an increasingly lifeless push for additional patent reform?
If The Economist stands by the article and really believes it is time to fix the patent system by ignoring the lessons of the past and destroying the engine that gave us the Industrial Revolution, then perhaps we will see articles critical of Fiat Chrysler patent activities. Maybe we will soon see an exposé in The Economist lambasting the audacity of companies seeking patents on devices so important and so ubiquitous as motor vehicles and internal combustion engines. Perhaps too we will see pigs fly.