A smart IP strategy for your smart devices

First published in Cambridge CatalystParminder Lally looks at internet of things innovation and IP.

At the turn of the century, the first internet-connected refrigerator was launched, with a rather hefty price tag.  The manufacturers of the fridge had a good idea but the world was not ready for it: only 25% of UK households had internet access in 2000 and many of those that did had a dial-up connection.  Twenty years on, 96% of UK households are connected to the internet via a cable and/or mobile network, and our work and personal lives means we’re almost constantly online.  The market for smart devices and the Internet of Things (IoT) is now established and growing, which means there is also lots of competition.  It’s more important than ever to protect innovation occurring in this field, but do you know whether you can protect your smart innovation?

One part of the IoT ecosystem is the end-user devices which many of us now own, such as a smart doorbell, a heating system you can control remotely with your phone, or even a fridge that tells you to buy more milk.  Of course, these devices are not only found in homes – IoT devices and sensors are used for monitoring and control in agriculture, for automation in factories, for improving tracking in global logistics, and so on.  Your new IoT device or sensor may be protectable using patents if you can demonstrate that it is novel and inventive.  Although adding internet-connectivity to an existing device is unlikely to be considered inventive, other developments may be patentable.  For example, solutions which improve reliability outdoors in different weather conditions, or which enable more accurate or reliable readings to be obtained by adjusting the position of a sensor within a device, may be patentable.

Another area of IoT innovation is in the communication protocols between the IoT device and a remote computer or server.  IoT devices need to transmit the data they collect to a remote server for processing, but they also need to receive information such as control commands and firmware updates from the remote server.  Typically, IoT devices are resource-constrained, meaning they usually have limited memory and processing power.  Techniques to address these constraints, for example by controlling when data is transmitted to and from the IoT devices, may be patentable.  The transfer of data and a lack of resources to run anti-virus programs means IoT devices can be vulnerable to malicious attacks.  These attacks could impact other devices connected to the same network, which is a huge privacy and security problem. Solutions that improve the security of IoT devices and the communication networks are therefore important, and these may also be patentable.

The final key part of the IoT revolution is the analysis of the data collected by the devices.  The data from one IoT device may be processed in isolation, but it is more likely that the data collected by multiple IoT devices (e.g. from a few, to tens of thousands) are processed together, possibly using AI, to make predictions or perform real-time control. These software-based analysis techniques may be patentable too.  There’s a common misconception that software cannot be patented, but in fact software innovations are regularly patented by start-ups and multinationals alike!

The IoT sector will continue to grow with the deployment of 5G, and so will competition. We can help you to spot your patentable inventions and protect them, to help you fend-off copy-cats and retain your market share.

Find out more about our advice for start-ups below:

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