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We Robot Conference: 1. Intellectual property

April 30, 2013

On April 8-9, Stanford Law School held the second annual robotics and law conference, We Robot. This year’s event focused on near-term policy issues in robotics and featured panels and papers by scholars, practitioners, and engineers on topics like intellectual property, tort liability, legal ethics, and privacy. The full program is here. This is the first of our posts recapping the event. Check back this week for more coverage!

This post is part of Robohub’s We Robot coverage.

The conference kicked off with a panel on intellectual property (IP) in the robotics industry.

Panel: Robotics and Intellectual Property
Speakers: Mark Lemley, Christian Hicks, Julie Samuels
Moderator: Brian Biddinger

The panel discussed general intellectual property issues (in particular patents and copyright) and how these could apply to emerging technologies in robotics. If you’re interested in learning a bit about the current problems with the patent and copyright system in general, this panel is worth a watch.

Regarding the robotics industry specifically, the panelists distinguished between hardware and software, and general purpose technology versus special purpose technology. They also discussed how robotic technologies may start out specialized and proprietary, but become increasingly commoditized over time – something seen previously in the computer and smartphone industries. The panelists’ advice on IP strategy (for individual companies as well as the industry in general) largely depended on the types of technology being developed.

For example, whether a company is devoting their main resources to hardware or software will determine how much of their IP life is influenced by patent or copyright law. The panel came down hard on software patents, arguing that they have done more harm than good and appealing to the robotics community to do everything possible to prevent them. Hardware patents were more difficult to dismiss, despite the danger of creating an unnecessary and suffocating patent thicket. As Samuels commented “I wish I could say ‘ignore patents!’ But they won’t ignore you.”

The panel speculated that specific purpose technology may lend itself to proprietary models, but robots that can later on be programmed by other people to do a variety of different things might be better to release as open-source. Comparing to other industries, Lemley observed that the companies that start out closed and proprietary are often first-movers, but they also often end up an edge player in the market later on. An opposite example is the Arduino model – releasing your platform as open, and focusing instead on branding. Because it’s hard to anticipate all of the things that people will want to do with the platform, it can be a successful strategy to keep it open at an early stage – so long as the brand is strong enough. (E.g. manufacturing robots and surgical arms may not necessarily be at that “early stage,” but perhaps household robots that will be able to do a variety of yet unknown things.) Hicks pointed out that interoperability may become increasingly important as robots start working together. Having a closed-off system like Apple can only work if you’re extremely and unusually successful – in any other case the better strategy for such an emerging eco-system will be open.

Hicks also spoke about his paper Robots, the DMCA, and Patents: Threats, Strategy, and Case Law in the Aftermarket, which describes how hardware manufacturers might start using the anti-circumvention provisions of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) to control secondary markets for service, software upgrades, etc. Based on the precedent of two court decisions, the DMCA can potentially be (ab)used to prevent customers and competitors from accessing software, and thus maintaining, upgrading, and adding functionality to robots, or even analyzing a product for patent infringement.

The panel talked about the problem of “trolls,” pointing out that over 60% of all lawsuits last year were brought by non-practicing entities (85% of these based on software patents). The panelists discussed (and disagreed about) the importance of patented technology for startups in getting VC funding. They also debated longer-term patent and copyright reform. As for the immediate future, the panel recommended that the industry 1. stay informed and share information with each other; 2. get involved and look for solutions within the current system, such as open-source software, getting behind projects like the defensive patent license, or working with agreements like Twitter’s Innovators Patent Agreement.

Other mentioned links of interest:
Lex Machina
Electronic Frontier Foundation

See all the We Robot coverage on Robohub

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