My house, my idea, my data – how can we protect our property?
April 26 is the World Intellectual Property Day
April 26 is the World Intellectual Property Day. This commemoration day, suggested by the UNESCO and proclaimed for the first time in 2000 by the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), is supposed to create a public awareness for the value of inventions. Intellectual property has special importance for FIZ Karlsruhe who, among other things, offers worldwide patent information through STN International and operates RADAR, an innovative service for research data management and publication. The new issues related to the whole area of intellectual property have induced FIZ Karlsruhe to establish its own research department for IP-rights in information infrastructures.
When hearing the term “property“, most people immediately think of something tangible, e.g., a car, a house, real estate, or gold bars. These things usually have a monetary market value; they can be sold, bequeathed, or profitably marketed. The property rights in a tangible asset are granted and protected by law, for example by registering the owner in the land register. Thus, there is written proof of who owns the property. If necessary, the owner can then assert his rights on this legal basis. Therefore, it is also legitimate that an owner defends his property and protects it against theft. The owner of a tangible asset may use it at his discretion and forbid others to use it, provided that this does not conflict with any law or with the rights of third parties.
There is no such global basic right for intellectual property. Instead, the property rights in an invention or idea are protected by copyright law, patent law, trademark law and registered designs. Let’s explain how this legal protection works taking patent law as an example: The State grants the inventor of a solution to a technological problem a patent. This patent allows him to monopolistically market his intellectual property for a limited period of time (up to 20 years) and within in a defined territory (designated states). During this time, no one may copy this invention unless the inventor has expressly granted a license for doing so.
So, the invention is officially protected for a limited period of time. In return, the inventor has to share his innovative know-how with the public, i.e., he has to disclose his idea in form of a patent. In this respect, the term “intellectual property” is somewhat misleading, for if it was real property within the sense of the “Grundgesetz” (the German Constitution), the owner would not be obligated to share it. There would not be any limitation as to time or place, either. In fact, intellectual property has an inferior legal position compared to the property in a tangible asset. In view of this, it is obvious why the commemorative day was launched.
A patent – the protection of an idea turned into a document
Patent databases collect intellectual property in form of patent documents and make it available to the public. Nowadays these documents are electronically available online. Thus, up-to-date inventions and ideas of others can be quickly searched and found. A subsequent patent search is supposed to bridge the gap between intellectual and material property. The core idea of our search was to look for patents (that protect intellectual property) as a means of protecting tangible property. We focused on patents that protect tangible property by locks. A search query in the DWPI database on STN combines synonyms of “lock” with expressions like “burglarproof”.
Photo: Anna-Mari West/Shutterstock.com
There is still a trend for patents for locks and latches
The key-keyhole technology has been around for centuries, but it is still in use and by no means obsolete. The large number of patents in this field shows that apparently this technology has still potential for improvement and further inventions. Within the last 16 years the number of published patents has significantly increased (see fig. 1).
A vast majority of these documents are patents filed in China, mostly utility models. Obviously, safety equipment is very popular in China. The Chinese are increasingly interested in protecting their tangible property against others. This development is in line with the country’s economic growth. Only once they have some property to speak of, people get the idea of wanting to protect it. This is all the more the case, the more unequally tangible goods are distributed among the members of society.
The patents are not filed by large Chinese groups but often by individuals and small companies. The chart below (fig. 2) shows the percentage of patent applications by country.
Protecting one’s own car comes first
An interesting question is what kind of property has to be this heavily protected. A statistic evaluation of the IPC1 mentioned in the search results can help answer this question. The pie chart below (fig. 3) shows the top five IPC classes and their content. The IPC for the general properties of locking devices (blue segment) is not relevant for our question, as it does not give any hint as to what is being protected. The other four classes, however, hint to the property to be protected. Most of the patents describe inventions that serve to secure and protect cars, cycles, and buildings, with patents for anti-theft devices for vehicles constituting the largest portion. Does this mean that vehicles are the most valuable and most desirable property, or that they are particularly prone to theft?
And how about intangible assets, e.g., research data? In the meantime, data are considered a resource of the 21th century. Digital data already have a high economic value, and forecasts predict that their value will further increase in the future. The data volume generated, for example, by one single networked, partly autonomous vehicle, is already very large. These data are sought for, because they can reveal a lot about the vehicle owner’s habits and consumer behavior. More and more new technologies are also being developed for the information infrastructure (including services such as STN International). However, not only the technical developments, but also the legal situation is “uncharted territory”. Who owns the data stored in a digital preservation repository? Who decides when these data may be deleted? Who is liable if the data are lost?
These are the questions Prof. Franziska Boehm deals with. She is Vice President Intellectual Property Rights and does research at FIZ Karlsruhe. “We have to distinguish between personal and other data. Both types of data are of great economic interest, but they are protected by different laws and therefore to be treated differently. Only when non-personal data are concerned does it make sense to consider establishing property rights similar to those held in physical property. There are many promising research approaches in this respect that are analyzed and further reviewed“.
The legal framework for protecting tangible assets has been in existence for a long time. Now the focus shifts towards intellectual property: The property rights in ideas and data are gaining in importance. For more than 100 years it has been possible to legally protect one’s ideas through patents. Now, due to the rapidly increasing amount of digital data, protecting the property in data will become a topic of growing interest.