Quetzalcoatl: God of IP and Big Data?


Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent, is the god of wind and learning, patron of learning and knowledge and related to the gods of arts and crafts. He was first revered in Teotihuacan, just outside modern Mexico City. In modern societies incentives for knowledge creation are frequently dependent on protection and enforcement of IP rights (Patents, Trademarks, Copyright, Designs ..). This brings us to the 2017 IP Statistics for Decision Makers conference, which took place last week in Mexico City – coincidence?

This conference brought together patent office representatives working on data (usually big), patent office economists, economists, lawyers and anyone else interested in IP statistics. The event was organised jointly by the three North American IP offices and OECD. The program included a broad range of topics – from the birth of the patent system in Venice (just before Cortez got to Mexico) to its optimisation. But one theme that loomed large at this event was digitisation, Big Data and the uses of modern analytics tools at patent offices.

Patent and trademark offices have increasingly been providing data to academics and their users for analysis. Such data-sets tend to be BIG: PATSTAT a dataset encompassing patent data on 90 million patents world-wide and the focus of an entire pre-conference workshop as well as a talk on a new and free linked open data version; TM-Link – a new trade mark database linking data from multiple offices and aspiring to do for marks what PATSTAT has done for patents; OECD’s latest report on the 2000 top R&D investors in the world, based on the free COR&DIP dataset. Academic users also got a look-in with their own add-ons: Rudi Bekkers presented a new database on Standard Essential Patents: the crown jewels of all firms operating in ICT industries.

Some IP offices are going beyond datasets by providing online tools to explore their data graphically such as USPTO’s tool to explore US patents online at patentsview.org. This is a classic dashboard and here you get a deluxe version allowing you to explore by country, use maps and explore relationships between patents!

Going beyond the provision of BIG DATAsets the very first panel of the main conference showed us how digitisation is affecting the internal work of IP offices. Once humble washing machines and state of the art semiconductors were separate inventions, and were examined by examiners with different expertise. Now the internet of things / industry 4.0 is changing all that: an examiner of a patent for a washing machine or fridge must be conversant in the legal nuances of software patents and must be able to link electrical and mechanical engineering. While digitisation is changing what our gadgets are capable of and these gadgets are feeding ever more detailed data on what we do into huge datasets, new statistical methods are being created to filter these data. These methods will also be used by offices: how long before neural networks, fed data from a representative panel of consumers, start classifying graphic trademarks for their similarity – a problem that has stumped trade mark lawyers for ever. This solution was not (yet) on the program, but we did discuss it over lunch. On day 2 Neil Thompson showed us early evidence from the race to patent the telephone (Bell v Gray): similarity of technical drawings lies at the heart of this example. Patents or trademarks, it seems that good graphical classification algorithms will have a great future at IP offices. It is unlikely that the algorithms will replace examiners any time soon: they will just make their work less boring, faster and more reliable.

One of the last talks at this event showed that digitisation isn’t all good for patent offices: where employees telecommute they learn less from each other. An ealier talk demonstrated that those companies at the forefront of the digital revolution aren’t always keen on its benefits, preferring to file submarine trademarks to hide their newest (most valuable?) product innovations.

Much more was discussed at IPSDM 2017 and even more over lunch, such as the problems of indigenous communities to protect their designs. Hard when they are hundreds of years old! Quetzalcoatl himself was the focus of a similar dispute over a mural from Teotihuacan that had ended up in San Francisco. No doubt he enjoyed the event as knowledge was being shared freely and most of us learned a great deal.

The author attended the conference to present ongoing work (Slides) on the impact of the financial crisis on R&D investment and patenting, using an earlier version of the COR&DIP data.




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