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3.5 million commuters hear the phrase “Mind the Gap” every day on the London Underground.

Introduced in 1968, the phrase is an audible warning for Tube passengers to use caution when boarding the train at stations with a curved platform, where an unsafe gap is created between the round platform edge and the straight doorway of the train. Almost nobody gives a second thought to the technology that underlies the automated announcement and yet it has proved to be the foundation of an important aspect of our modern lives – personal entertainment.

Developed by AEG Telefunken, the system is based on digitally recorded sound stored and replayed using solid state equipment with no moving parts, thereby reducing maintenance and increasing reliability. Since data storage was incredibly expensive in the late 1960s, the message was kept deliberately short.

Fast forward 15 years and that technology was at the heart of a revolution – the first patented personal digital music system developed by – no, not Apple®, but by one Kane Kramer. Patents GB2115996 and US4667088 for a “Portable data processing and storage system the size of a credit card and includes magnetic bubble memory which stores three minutes of music” were issued in 1985 and 1987, respectively. Kramer’s company went on to develop a prototype personal digital music system called the IXI.

The patents were good but, in what could be considered one of the biggest mistakes in business of all time, they were allowed to lapse for want of £60,000 in renewal fees at a time when the company had £60 million worth of orders on the books. The technology became public property, Apple developed the iPod®, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Minding the Gap in the Patent World

Hundreds of thousands of patent applications are filed every year in the US and EU. Over 500,000 patent applications are filed per year in the US, but only around 300,000 granted patents are issued. Similarly, about 150,000 patent applications are filed every year at the EPO, but only around 60,000 granted patents are issued. Globally, there are over one million patent applications filed annually but only 50% - 70% of them result in a granted patent.

Even allowing for the two-to-four year lag from filing to eventual grant, the gap between the number of applications and the number of granted patents represents the number of failed applications – applications that were drafted and filed but will be rejected by the examiners or abandoned by the applicants, and so never result in a granted patent. The majority of rejections are due to poor searches which fail to identify relevant prior art.

A very conservative estimate for the cost of drafting and filing either a US or EP application is around $10,000. Based on that estimate, the 200,000 applications that are filed in the US per year that will not result in a grant adds up to $2 billion. For the EPO, it comes to another $1 billion spent annually on drafting and filing applications that will not yield a grant. For the US and EP alone, this is a combined gap of $3 billion per year.

This represents wasted time, effort and money that could be far better invested in productive R&D leading to increased efficiency, faster product development times and better returns for an organization. Even a 10% reduction in poor quality filings could result in savings of up to $0.5 million for a typical company.

Do Your Homework

The solution may seem simple: Only file patent applications for those ideas or inventions you know you want to take to market and for which you’re certain you’ll receive a grant. In order for an invention to receive granted-patent status, it must meet the core requirements of a patent. That is, it must be novel, non-obvious and useful. This sounds fairly straightforward, but ensuring your invention meets these requirements means you really need to do your homework.

Homework, in the patent world, entails a combination of state-of-the-art, prior-art and freedom-to-operate research, as well as competitive landscaping and other strategic approaches that minimize your risk of not being granted a patent and increase the market potential for your invention.

The traditional manner in which this homework has been done is via in-house and outside counsel who collaborate to complete the required due diligence. However, this process is costly and in the age of downsized departments, maximized efficiencies and profit consciousness, it’s often challenging to meet competing expectations with the staff available.

More frequently, the trend is to outsource certain intellectual property (IP) actions to organizations with experts in the IP space. These are professionals skilled in the art of patent research who also have expertise in myriad industries, so they are specialty experts as well. This process is historically known as “legal process outsourcing” (LPO) but has more recently been referred to as engaging the Virtual IP Office or VIPO.

The Virtual IP Office

A phrase coined by Thomson Reuters, the Virtual IP Office is fast becoming the latest business trend in the areas of research, development, innovation and law. In 2012 the UK Law Society estimated the LPO market was worth approximately $440 million, while Fronterion LLC reported that the Philippines and India alone would generate $960 million in 2015.

The VIPO is a subset of the larger LPO market space, with specialization in the intellectual property space. Testimonials from clients engaging in this process show the benefits that can be reaped from this service. A large manufacturer of heavy machines saved over $1 million in its first year of engagement on patent drafting costs as a result of the VIPO (based on outside counsel drafting costs of $12,000 - $15,000/patent). A computer networking company saved over $400,000 through targeted knockout searches that identified prior art and decreased the number of applications filed each year by 10%.

Whatever the need, the VIPO is a reliable solution given market conditions and the growing focus on business transformation. Business trends including globalization, a shortage of skilled workers in specialized fields, disruptive technologies and others all contribute to the increasing emphasis on outsourced services such as those offered by the Virtual IP Office.

“Outsourcing of certain administrative and even more advanced analytic, IP functions has proven to save our clients significant sums of money annually,” said Stuart Recher, Vice President of IP Services at Thomson Reuters. “From patent preparation and drafting, to docketing support and claims analysis, utilization of the Virtual IP Office is a great way to free up time for more strategic projects for your staff and to maximize efficiencies, while also realizing significant cost savings.”

Kane Kramer ...

The story of the lapsed patent renewal that Kane Kramer held is a good example of the missed opportunities that can result when a company’s intellectual assets aren’t managed with the utmost care and attention. The world would likely be a different place today if the iPhone® as we know it was instead the “IXI” originating in the United Kingdom, not the United States.

Apple, iPod and iPhone are trademarks of Apple Inc., registered in the U.S. and other countries