The Royal Society has published a report of its “Internet of Things (IoT): Opportunities and Threats” conference held in October 2017. A copy of the report is available here, and makes for interesting reading.
Much of the report focusses on the anticipated policy and sociological challenges that the fourth industrial revolution will bring, such as issues of data privacy and ownership, security, and consumer protection. However, the report also identifies a number of important technology areas, where we expect to see increasing research and development and related patent filing activity. Broadly speaking, these areas are:
- Security: The security of IoT devices and networks, their associated user data, and the resilience of IoT devices against cyber-attacks.
- Resilience: The physical resilience of IoT devices once placed into their operating environments, based on factors such as power supply, efficiency and network resource requirements.
- Inter-operability: the need for technical standards for IoT devices, ensuring inter-operability and longevity of IoT device usage.
- Interaction: sensing and control of other devices by IoT enabled controllers.
- Impact: environmental considerations, in view of the fact that “as of 2015, the IoT was comprised of 15 billion devices and is set to grow to 30+ billion by 2020, equivalent to 3 smart objects for every human on earth”.
Professor Bashir Al-Hashimi FRENG, of the University of Southampton for example noted that billions of batteries are required to operate the IoT posing a significant environmental risk, and argued that for some applications, “energy harvesting” which converts ambient energy sources such as vibration, light and temperature into electrical energy could become the standard for new energy efficient devices.
Similarly, Professor Julie McCann of Imperial College London also notes that “an IoT device must be designed so that it can survive in the environment in which it is placed and in locations that users may not see or interact with”.
Patenting activity in Europe and the UK will of course be shaped by the current patent law applied by the UK and European patent offices, and presently, this excludes patents being granted for inventions that relate solely to the intellectual content of the data, or that are no more than a computer programmed to carry out a human activity. Georgina Ainscow’s article of December 2017 discusses some of the issues here in connection with the EPO’s most recent report.
As the IoT revolution is underpinned by the activity of computer processors operating under the control of respective computer programs, businesses will need to consider what aspects of their smart devices or networks are patentable. IoT inventions that relate solely to a programmed computer or to a business method, such as new user experience offering or service, may not always be capable of protection. Examples of inventions that may be problematic in Europe in this respect include systems for ordering a replacement part, providing route directions to a driver, and performing a financial calculation. Innovators who took part in the ‘dot com’ boom of the turn of the century, and on-line app developers now, generally encounter the same issues of patentability. (Such inventions may nevertheless be patentable in other jurisdictions, such as the US and Japan).
On the other hand, IoT inventions that improve the operation of the IoT device at the level of its operating system or that improve the operation of the network to which it is connected would likely be patentable in Europe, providing they meet the other requirements of the patent system, such as being new and not obvious. We would expect solutions to the challenges discussed above – security, resilience, inter-operability, interaction, and impact, would likely form the majority of any future IoT related allowed patent applications in Europe and the UK.
Reddie & Grose LLP has a reputation for providing our clients with strategic, global advice on the patentability of their cutting edge technologies. If you would like any further information about the issues touched on in this article, please let us know.
This article is for general information only. Its content is not a statement of the law on any subject and does not constitute advice. Please contact Reddie & Grose LLP for advice before taking any action in reliance on it.