Earlier this month I had the opportunity to catch up with Joff Wild for a wide-ranging on the record interview. Wild is the well-known Editor-in-Chief of the IP Division of the London-based Globe Business Media Group, which publishes Intellectual Asset Management (IAM) magazine, and also hosts the popular IP Business Congress.
I’ve known Joff for many years, and the excuse for catching up with him now was two-fold. First, IAM is the flagship intellectual property publication in the world, and with Joff based in the United Kingdom it is always useful to get perspectives on events of the day from those looking in from outside. Second, the 2018 IP Business Congress is now less than two-months away, so this interview will offer a bit of a sneak peak with respect to those issues that will be covered when the IP business community convenes in San Francisco from June 10-12, 2018.
Without further ado, here is part 1 of my interview with Joff Wild.
QUINN: Thanks for taking the time to chat with me today. I know that you have the IPBC coming up and there is a lot going on in the IP world. So maybe we start with a big general question and we can take it from there. What do you see on the world stage that’s happening that’s most interesting, most exciting or maybe most unexpected?
WILD: Well there are a few things. First of all, the really big thing that’s happening right now is we’re looking at the beginning of the Andrei Iancu directorship of the USPTO. IAM was lucky enough to get one of the first interviews with him earlier on this year and he’s speaking at IPBC Global as one of the keynotes, and I think that a lot of people, not only in the U.S. but also elsewhere too, are very interested to see how he approaches the multiple problems and challenges the office faces. And obviously he’s coming in at a time also when it looks like the Trump administration and the Chinese government are upping the ante with regards to trade and intellectual property as well. So, he’s coming in at a time when people were very focused on the U.S. patent system and his role is only going to ratchet up over the next month’s given what’s been going on in the wider world.
QUINN: Do you think, like a lot of folks here in D. C. seem to think, that the Trump Administration and Director Iancu are going to pull back a bit on the PTAB?
WILD: When our North America editor Richard Lloyd interviewed Mr. Iancu, the director was very cautious with his words. It’s clear he’s not someone who’s going to stand there and tell you everything he’s thinking. So I think that if people are expecting dramatic moves very quickly, they’re going to be disappointed. But my sense is that what we do have in Iancu is someone who is very willing to listen to the concerns of patent owners. He’s someone who’s been working with them for a number of years across different industries and who understands their concerns. What was interesting about the interview he did with us and speeches he has also made is he keeps using words like certainty and predictability. And I think that above all else these are what are important for patent owners, because they allow for planning and give confidence in investment decisions. My sense is that he will deliver on more predictability and certainty, but he probably will not do it tomorrow or next week – it’s going to be a process.
QUINN: Yes, well you know it took us some time to get into this situation and it’s going to take some time to get us out of this situation. But when I’ve heard him speak, that was the thing that also I noticed. The other thing I noticed him talk about was transparency.
QUINN: And coming off of the Obama Administration – and I’d like to get your opinion on this too because as another person who covers the industry. The Obama Administration talked about transparency an awful lot.
QUINN: And when I’ve heard Director Iancu talk, he talks about wanting there to actually be transparency and I sense that when he talks about it there’s something different that he’s talking about. What’s your take on that?
WILD: Yes, I think transparency is vital. I would say that under David Kappos when he was Director of the USPTO there were a lot of moves towards increasing transparency, certainly with regards to statistical information. Kappos made a lot more information available to people that maybe hadn’t been there before, and he made it available in quite user friendly ways. However, the perception among a lot of people once Kappos left was that there was a lot of backroom deal making going on with regards to US patent policy and that people had special access to senior parts of the government and that they got to set the agenda.
I think maybe some of that is true, but it is also the case that many patent owners didn’t take the initiative and ended up leaving it to the big high-tech companies to set the agenda when maybe they could have got more actively involved more quickly. But I agree – I think transparency in decision making and transparency in terms of lobbying is absolutely crucial, especially in a system like the U.S. one where at the moment there’s a level of suspicion and people are wary of what’s going on. I think in those situations it’s really important to shine a full light on everything.
And I would say it’s not only the U.S. where transparency is an issue, I think we have major transparency problems, as you will know Gene at the World Intellectual Property Organization. We’ve seen some very worrying developments and issues there over recent years; and a lot of people would say that the European Patent Office is another place where a lot of decisions get made in the shadows and people don’t fully understand why those decisions are being made and who’s influencing the decision-making process. Patents are too important in my view for that to be the case. I can understand how a few years ago – when patents were kind of a peripheral subject and very niche – that people just got on with making decisions and no one really cared about it very much. But patents are big business now and they’re big politically, so you have to have a transparent regime otherwise people are not going to trust in it.
QUINN: Yes, you know there’s a lot there. I thought the first Obama Administration was very transparent and then I thought the second Obama Administration – and I’m talking in the patent world and I don’t want to go outside the patent world – was anything but transparent. They tried to seem transparent, but their use of statistics almost hid what was really going on. And that’s probably enough about that, I suppose you know I mean. Statistics are what they are. I mean one of the things that always amazed me about this whole IPR thing is they would show how many cases would fall away and they would only focus on the number of cases actually reaching a final written decision so the fact that we’re killing every patent that gets the final written decision doesn’t really matter. They were counting settlements and disclaimers as wins for the patent owner when they’re just clearly are not wins for the patent owner. They are patent owner loses; they lose the claim. So that was just interesting. But with the World Intellectual Property Organization, I don’t know whether it shocks you, but all that went on with Director Gurry, I just was shocked that he was able to withstand that and stay in Office. That controversy seems to have completely blown over now and nobody’s talking about that.
WILD: I make no judgment about whether anyone was guilty or not, but I think the entire process was an absolute disgrace from the beginning to end the way it was done. If you believe in intellectual property like I do, and I’m sure you agree it’s one of the pivotal business assets of the 21st Century, then you have to demonstrate that and you have to show that the people who are developing policy, the people who are implementing policy are doing it for the right reasons with the right motivations; and if you don’t do that then you’re going to cause yourself problems. And I could not believe when I found out that you were being threatened with legal action, I found it astonishing. But, as I say, it’s a problem everywhere, because patents are developing from something that was very niche and specialized – for engineers and nerds only – to being a lot more politicized and a lot more about business.
But you’ve still got people managing the processes who are from the old days. Whereas the people that are scrutinizing the processes are from the 21st Century, if you see what I mean, in terms of their outlook and their training. And there’s an issue – there’s a problem there I think between the two sides that needs to be resolved and it has to be resolved in favor of transparency – it just has to be. You can’t fix things sitting in the shadows.
QUINN: Yes. I would just say to end that thread is simply I’m still not going to Switzerland and won’t have Switzerland on any of my travel plans out of an abundance of caution. But to pivot from this thread, and pick back up with the broader theme of transparency, one of the real bugaboos with the industry is the lack of transparency on the deal making side, which makes it so difficult to know what’s really going on.
WILD: Yes, I totally agree. I think it’s something that over time again I think is going to have to change. As patents become more essential to more businesses, investors are going to want to have more information about them. They’re going to want to have more visibility about the decisions being made around patents and so they’re going to need to know what’s going on in terms of deal making. They’re going to need to understand why deals are being done, how much they’re being done for and that kind of stuff. And another issue I think which is really important is what’s going on in the moment between the U.S. and China in terms of IP and the U.S. being very concerned about Chinese companies getting hold of U.S. technology.
We all know for the last 10 years, Chinese companies have been buying shedloads of U.S. patents. But what more do we know than that? Are they buying those patents directly? Are they buying those patents through third parties or brokers? How are those patents being owned? How are those patents being used now? How might they be used in the future? Right now, because of the general lack of transparency around IP deal making, we have no answers to any of those questions. So we just don’t know what level of Chinese patent ownership there is in the U.S.
WILD: From a political perspective, it seems to me that’s quite an interesting challenge. On a personal basis I’ve got nothing but respect for what the Chinese have done with patents and intellectual property over the past few decades when you consider they didn’t’ actually have much of a patent system at all 40 years ago. To get to where they’ve got now – where they’ve probably got the most pro-plaintiff patent courts in the world, there’s more patent litigation in China than anywhere else, there’s more patent filings in China than anywhere else, the level of patent knowledge in big Chinese corporations is on a par with many other countries around the world – all that is incredibly commendable.
But from a political perspective, American companies have been selling patents to the Chinese for a number of years, but we know absolutely nothing about those deals and even today you don’t know what deals are being done, who by and why. And the only way that gets solved is with transparency.
QUINN: Yes, and it’s –and I’m sure you’ve heard this – companies don’t even know what they own themselves.
WILD: Absolutely. Yes. It’s true yes.
QUINN: And that shocks people to the point where when you say that nobody really believes you unless they’ve had experience working with these companies.
QUINN: And so, transparency not only is potentially going to become or already really is a national security issue, it is an issue that shareholders and boardrooms should be concerning themselves with yesterday.
WILD: Absolutely. Well you consider the cost of maintaining a patent portfolio of you know 20,000 or 30,000 assets, it’s a lot of money and if you don’t know exactly what you have and what it does, you’re throwing money away essentially. As an investor, as a member of the board that is not something that I want to be hearing about.
WILD: It’s interesting that you mention the numbers. In the issue of IAM that’s just come out, we’ve published something with ktMine called the U.S. Patent 100 where we’ve actually listed the 100 biggest active U.S. patent portfolios. What’s interesting is that Samsung owns the biggest active U.S. patent portfolios. They’ve got something like 75,000 active patents which is around 30,000 more than IBM which is in second place. Every year we hear IBM receives the most U.S. patent grants and so your logical conclusion from that is that IBM’s probably got the biggest U.S. patent portfolio but actually that isn’t the case, because IBM actually abandons a lot of patents each year.
Another interesting factoid is that seven out of the ten biggest active U.S. patent portfolios are actually owned by Asian companies. There’s only three U.S. companies in the top ten – IBM, Microsoft and Intel.
QUINN: That is interesting, and you know the other thing that IBM also does is in addition to abandoning patents, is they will package patents up and sell them prior to maintenance fees coming due.
QUINN: And they take the license back, which is smart if they’re not going to keep them. Bu I’ve got to wonder why Samsung needs 75,000 active patents.
WILD: I think one of the issues we have is that a lot of companies are very cautious. They’re very defensive. Freedom to operate is the mantra and so you know it’s risky to get rid of a patent rather than to keep it, even if the cost is high. If I were on the Samsung board, I would certainly be asking exactly the question you’ve asked. It’s one that is being asked increasingly in Japanese companies – you see a lot more being much more proactive in the way that they manage their portfolios in terms of sales and doing licensing deals and things like that.
QUINN: Yes, you know I don’t know what to say. I mean I suppose that there’s some reasons why they’re doing that.
CLICK to CONTINUE READING… Up next is discussion of what is happening in China, U.S. patent eligibility, and the so far non-event that has been BREXIT.