(By Duncan Bucknell, co-written with Joanne Sinclair, Consulting Editor.)
Duncan caught up with Deepak Somaya when in Washington earlier this year. Deepak is an Assistant Professor at the R. H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland.
Please tell us a little about your work.
I am a professor in strategic management, so my fundamental goal is to understand how companies can be successful by employing different strategies. I am particularly interested in intellectual property strategies, as well as other managerial approaches to protect and leverage a company's intellectual assets.
It is very important to me as a researcher to ground this understanding in rigorous theoretical models that can then be tested with real-world data. This gives the research findings and conclusions a great deal of robustness and longevity, rather than it being simply someone's opinion.
How did you become interested in intellectual property?
I happened to be a Ph.D. student at Cal (University of California at Berkeley) at the same time as a lot of great scholars in intellectual property, which was a fabulous resource. The primary lenses used by these scholars were either law (I benefited greatly from Mark Lemley, Rob Merges, Pamela Samuelson) or economics (Bronwyn Hall, David Mowery, Suzanne Scotchmer, Carl Shapiro, Hal Varian, Brian Wright) ... I may be unintentionally omitting some people. I wanted to do something a little different ... more managerial, strategically oriented ... closer in spirit to David Teece, who was a big influence. I got an opportunity to work on a project studying international differences in patent protection, and it just went on from there.
Could you please tell us your current working definition for intellectual property strategy?
To me, intellectual property strategy encompasses the top management decisions about the use of intellectual property to support business objectives.
I should clarify a little here. Sometimes the conversation about IP can easily get bogged down in the minutiae of IP law. IP strategy is only really successful if one can abstract away from some of this detail and focus on the big picture of what decisions are important, and how they matter to the company.
What would you say are the key lessons from businesses that have come out of your work so far?
Let me list two sets of ideas that I think are valuable. The first is to be disciplined and clear about what IP strategy one is pursuing for a given line of business. This is not a stand-alone decision. It depends on the firm's strengths and strategic goals in the business. In most cases, I think the strategy boils down to one of 3 "generic" strategies - a proprietary strategy, a defensive strategy, or a leverage strategy.
The second idea connects patent strategy and business models in industries that I call "multi-invention" industries. Essentially, these are businesses where there are lots of inventions needed to make end products, many of them patentable. Companies may just go ahead and commercialize and "worry about IP later." Sometimes, they are too obsessed with IP and don't think through their business model. In these situations, business models and IP strategy really go hand in hand. One cannot really think about one without the other. So, one needs to develop a good strategy to commercialize innovation, and simultaneously combine this with a well-crafted and compatible intellectual property strategy.
Where do you see the future of IP Strategy heading? (For example, I personally think that over time, open source / creative commons type systems will increasingly be demanded by consumers across all industries. There will be great rewards for those who properly prepare for this.)
In my mind, the knowledge and relationships that move when employees move is really big. This goes beyond legal IP alone. It’s in a zone where IP strategy meets strategic HR meets business strategy. I think companies will struggle with this issue for some time to come. A significant fraction of my current research is directed towards this area.
In addition, I think there is still a lot of room for better understanding and strategizing in multi-invention contexts.
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