Nanotech has become a breeding ground for patent ‘tollgates’. What’s next?
A PC processor that fits in the back pocket of your jeans, a room illuminated by light bulbs so tiny they are invisible when turned off – simple examples ofnanotechnology in daily life. As a science though, nanotech is far more complex, with various subsets to technology processes.
Introduction of Class 977
Beginning of the 21st century saw exponential growth in the number of patents filed in the area of nanotech – so much that the USPTO introduced separate class for nanotech patent applications – Class 977. According to the mandate for this class, criteria that ‘Relate to research and technology development in the length scale of
approximately 1-100 nm in at least one dimension; provide a fundamental understanding of phenomena and materials at the nanoscale and create and use structures, devices, and systems that have size-dependent novel properties and functions’ are included in this class.
‘Toll gate’ phenomenon
Researchers are actively filing patents under Class 977. Most of them are however vying to serve as ‘toll gates’ for future products. In other words, they are anticipating that the sheer number of nanotechnology patents will see the emergence of ‘building blocks’ in future products. This would force product manufacturers to procure licenses from multiple assignees, and one can never be sure of what licenses to acquire. A string of litigations is only waiting to happen now.
Most nanotech patents are focused on end products or ready-to-use applications, and not on manufacturing methods.
Also, patent practitioners who do not work on cross-disciplinary technologies, face a greater challenge in drafting patent claims – since they need to extrapolate diverse applications associated with one invention.
A narrow claim may result in loss of revenue for the inventor and a broad claim will get rejected outright. The sheer exhaustiveness of industries and businesses that nanotech encompasses, makes it, from a patent licensing and litigation standpoint, a very lucrative, and challenging segment – as long as the claims are forecast accurately.
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