By Jeremiah Chan, Director and Associate General Counsel, Head of Patents
We live in a world surrounded by stunning advances in science and technology — a world built by the ingenuity and ambition of great innovators and sustained by an important but often overlooked concept that’s central to the progress of progress itself: patents.
By granting innovators limited exclusive rights to their inventions, patents encourage people to take on the risk of breaking in new ideas. By discouraging copycats, patents help to promote the progress of science and technology.
At present, many governments around the world are looking at ways to update their patent regimes to meet the current challenges of innovation. We’d like to describe our approach to patents in the hopes of fostering an open dialogue about their importance and their future.
Our Approach to Patents
At Facebook, our patent strategy is focused on filing and acquiring high-value patents that facilitate our company’s mission to give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together. Patents help us advance innovation and protect the services that benefit billions of people.
We use our robust patent portfolio to protect our ability to innovate, partner with other companies to facilitate collaboration instead of litigation, and defend against abusive patent assertions. That’s why the patents we file are not always indicative of our current or future plans. Many of our patents are never incorporated into our products or services, but rather focus on future-looking technology and features.
Facebook uses its patents when it needs to counter-assert against aggressors or go after those who steal our proprietary technology. We are not interested in offensively asserting patents against competitors solely to gain a competitive market advantage or generate licensing revenue. We use patents to promote innovation at Facebook and throughout the industry. In the past, we’ve used our portfolio to counter-assert against companies who initiated litigation. And we’ve entered into cross-licenses to avoid patent disputes with other companies. At heart, we believe patent rules should be based in transparency and clarity. When patent requirements set by national patent offices are clear, people are better able to comply with the rules for filing a patent, and the overall quality of patents is improved.
The Importance of a Balanced System
Facebook supports a well-balanced patent system that promotes innovation, makes it easier to bring new products to market and facilitates competition. Only a well-balanced system that ensures patent quality and provides for easy dispute resolution can incentivize innovation while minimizing barriers to bringing new products to market. Such a system protects the ability of patent owners to exclude others from practicing their patented inventions and protects against abusive patent assertions that would extort innovators with the threat of endless lawsuits. When companies use abusive patent threats, the resulting litigation can drag on for years and cost millions in legal fees. With an uncertain timeline for resolution, the return on investment for any patent holder is speculative, and innovation dries up.
That’s why we’ve joined a number of organizations to help support inventors and prevent abusive litigation practices. In November 2017, Facebook joined the LOT Network, a non-profit community of patent holders that protects innovation by shielding its members from abusive litigation through the sharing of patent licenses. We continue to encourage other companies to join organizations like the LOT Network and the Open Invention Network to help further open, collaborative patent communities.
Facebook’s Approach to Investments, Open Source and Diversity
Patents are also significant to Facebook because we invest a lot in research into new technologies. While historically we focused on social networking, our current patent portfolio includes hard-won innovations in augmented and virtual reality , infrastructure, communication, commerce, artificial intelligence, machine learning and connectivity. To grow our portfolio even more, we hire thousands of experts in dozens of highly technical disciplines. In 2018 alone, we invested nearly 20% of revenue — over $10 billion — in research and development.
These investments allow us to make major improvements in cutting-edge technologies, including AR/VR, which we think will transform the way people connect across the world. We’ve also made advancements in the field of AI, particularly through our research arm, Facebook AI Research that works in AI theory, algorithms, applications, software infrastructure and hardware infrastructure. This group publishes their work openly so developers can innovate on what we’ve invented.
A major part of our approach to patents includes a commitment to Open Source. We founded the Open Compute Project, which spurred global innovation in data center design by sharing ours. We maintain a library of Open Source programming software, and we’re involved with a number of academic programs such as the Facebook Fellowship and Emerging Scholar programs and The University of California Berkeley Artificial Intelligence Research Lab to further open collaboration in AI research.
We also place a high value on the fresh ideas and insights that come from having a diverse workforce with diverse perspectives that can empathize with people who use our products around the world. Our 2019 diversity report highlights some of the progress that we have made so far, and we are continuing to push for greater diversity and inclusion across the entire company. The Facebook patent team recently hosted our first intern from the Law in Technology Diversity Collaborative, and we launched a new initiative aimed at achieving gender parity in patenting that focuses on increasing visibility of the patent process to women, better understanding the barriers that women face in participating in the ecosystem. In the US we’ve provided feedback to the Intellectual Property Owners Association and the US Patent and Trademark Office about gender barriers and best practices.
As technology continues to evolve, patents will play a greater role supporting inventors and innovators. At Facebook, we’ll continue to seek a balanced patent system that protects the freedom to build new technologies while ensuring that incentives for abuse are minimized.