Brad Feld

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Excellent Summary of Berkeley Patent Survey Results

Jul 27, 2010
Category Technology

In 2008 I was invited by Pamela Samuelson, who I met through several Silicon Flatiron events, to be on an advisory board at the Berkeley Center for Law & Technology.  I attended the one meeting that we had and a subsequent symposium and wrote about it in the post Entrepreneurial Companies and the Patent System.  As with most things like this, I found it fascinating, stimulating, and frustrating all at the same time and hoped that I’d contributed something useful to the discussion.

I read the paper titled High Technology Entrepreneurs and the Patent System: Results of the 2008 Berkeley Patent Survey when it came out at the end of June 2010.  I thought it was a solid paper although there were some things that I struggled with which is typical for me in any academic paper, especially when I get bogged down in arguing with myself while trying to parse the footnotes.  But I was optimistic that as the authors started talking about the article, some thoughtful and constructive discourse would result.

I was appalled when I started seeing soundbites emerge from at least one of the authors of the paper from weak conclusions buried in the midst of the data.  My partner Jason took one of them on when he wrote his post 76% of Venture Capitalists Believe that Software Patents are Important (NOT!) In this post I think Jason does an excellent job of dissecting the data and explaining why this is not only an incorrect conclusion from the data, but a terribly misleading soundbite.

Fortunately, Pam Samuelson (one of the other co-authors) has set the record straight with her excellent summary of the Berkeley Patent Survey on her post on O’Reilly Radar titled Why software startups decide to patent … or not. Her essay is very digestible and focuses specifically on the issue of software patents and what she believes they reported in the paper.  She reached the following conclusions which she states in her intro:

  • Two-thirds of the approximately 700 software entrepreneurs who participated in the 2008 Berkeley Patent Survey report that they neither have nor are seeking patents for innovations embodied in their products and services.
  • These entrepreneurs rate patents as the least important mechanism among seven options for attaining competitive advantage in the marketplace.
  • Even software startups that hold patents regard them as providing only a slight incentive to invest in innovation.

Pam is balanced in her intro as she concludes by saying “While the three findings highlighted above might seem to support a software patent abolitionist position, it is significant that a third of the software entrepreneurs reported having or seeking patents, and that they perceive patents to be important to persons or firms from whom they hope to obtain financing.”

The juiciest conclusion is about halfway through the essay and is “One of the most striking findings of our study is that software firms ranked patents dead last among seven strategies for attaining competitive advantage identified by the survey.”  Another one was “We were surprised to discover that the software respondents reported that patents provide only weak incentives for engaging in core activities, such as invention of new products (.96) and commercialization (.93).”

I’m glad Pam took this on and put this out there.  I look forward to more studies she does from this research set.