How to protect your big data idea

The nature and pace of innovation has changed.

No longer will entrepreneurs spend several years considering how a new technology performs under research conditions before developing it and launching it into the marketplace.

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Despite its growing popularity, ‘big data’ is still a relatively new and unexplored area of focus for innovation activity. As such, large data sets that have either been collected over a long period of time, or relate to large numbers of measurands, can provide fertile ground for patentable inventions.

For entrepreneurs that succeed in bringing their big data ideas to market, applying for patent protection could give a valuable 20-year monopoly in their target markets. It may also be possible to leverage the patented technology by licensing it to third parties in the future.

In recent years, innovation activity has been fuelled by a series of data giveaways by various bodies, in particular several government agencies.

Tech entrepreneurs have responded positively to such releases; looking for ways to harness the unstructured data in a way that will deliver valuable insights or support a commercially-viable service for consumers or businesses.

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Earlier this year, the Department of Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) released data from the National Food Survey, which has been running since 1940, as part of the biggest-ever government data giveaway.

As part of its #OpenDefra initiative, the department is planning to make 8,000 data sets – mainly focused on food and farming – freely available this year.

While data giveaways of this type are intended to encourage innovation, it is important that steps are taken to protect ideas that arise from processing and acting upon the processed data, where it is possible to do so.

While not all big data ideas will be eligible for patent protection, those that have a specifically technical outcome – as opposed to a purely administrative one – are likely to fulfil the criteria for patent protection set by UK and European patent law.

Before discussing any idea with a third party, big data entrepreneurs should consider whether the application of their invention is technical or not and if so, take steps to protect it.

This is not necessarily as straightforward as it sounds.

For example, one big data application might involve capturing traffic movements in a city or town, and using the captured data in algorithms capable of providing real-time routing intelligence and control of traffic management systems.

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This type of invention would have a technical effect and, as such, should be eligible for patent protection.

Conversely, data algorithms that deliver predictions about consumer shopping preferences are unlikely to be regarded as sufficiently technical to qualify for patent protection.

Use of big data per se will not be enough to render the idea patentable, the differentiator lies in what the big data processing actually achieves, and whether that can be considered technical or not.

If in any doubt about whether an invention is patentable or not, entrepreneurs should seek specialist advice. It is important to remember that early disclosure of the idea could constitute ‘prior art’ and render the invention ineligible for patent protection.

Big data entrepreneurs should also take care to check the terms and conditions of any data giveaway before investing time and energy in development activity.

There could be restrictions attached, which might mean that any royalties earned from intellectual property rights secured in the future must be shared.

While this is not necessarily a deal breaker, entrepreneurs need to be aware of such restrictions from the start.

As data-driven innovation is a relatively new area of focus, if a patent application for a specific invention is granted it is likely to include a relatively broad definition; covering a number of areas of potential application.

From the entrepreneur’s perspective, this could deliver an unexpected advantage in the future, by increasing the potential to earn royalties as the marketplace matures.

Big data ideas could turn into patented money spinners in the future. The challenge for tech entrepreneurs is to ensure their big ideas have a technical outcome and to ensure any intellectual property is protected.

Sourced by Nick Wallin, partner and patent attorney at European intellectual property firm, Withers & Rogers