Patenting optical inventions requires keen analysis and
understanding of legal issues across multi-technology fields
including optical, mechanical, and electrical engineering.
Building a "war chest" of patents involves probing
and extending the strategic relationships between legal,
technical, and business issues. Among the different forms
of intellectual property protection afforded under the law,
a patent is arguably the most potent weapon to attack in
the increasingly crowded optical battlefield. A patent represents
a legal instrument to exclude allies and foes from making,
using, or selling the patented technologies.
A fundamental shift from an electrical-based world to an
optical-based world has created a tremendous market opportunity
for new start-ups. Rather than a linear progression -- from
microprocessors, to personal computers, to routers, to local
and wide area networks -- the optical industry is moving
in all cylinders simultaneously in developing products such
as fiber amplifiers, photonic processors, optical cross
connects, SONET rings, optical service networks, and microelectromechanical
systems (MEMS). An optical company can increase its valuation
dramatically by pre-empting other competitors in developing
a strategic patent portfolio in the emerging optical standards,
interfaces, and transport platforms.
II. Patent Strategies in Emerging Technologies
A defensive patent portfolio affords a company to protect
the company’s "family jewel" of technologies.
Years of research and development in new concepts that may
be implemented in a commercial product can be captured in
one or more patent applications. Upon the grant of a patent
by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, if a competitor
infringes the patented concepts, the company can resort
to legal instruments of patents in seeking justice in a
court of law. When a competitor launches a pre-emptive threat
or actual litigation, a defensive patent portfolio provides
leverage to negotiate for a more favorable settlement, or
means for counter-claims in litigation.
A shrewd offensive patent strategy can place a company
in a strong position in increasing the company’s valuation,
collect licensing royalties, or request an injunction to
halt a competitor from shipping a product. Creating an offensive
patent strategy varies on many dynamic factors that frequently
evolves with each given situation. In particular, optical
inventions pose intriguing challenges for patent lawyers
due to the integration of multi-disciplinary fields of electrical,
mechanical, and optics in order to design an optical product.
The unsettling of various optical standards among several
task groups present pointed challenges in extending an optical
concept for horizontal integration and vertical integration.
III. Application of Patent Rights to a Specific Sector
A. Optical Networking Infrastructures
Telecom companies are building all-optical networks like
Synchronous Optical Networks (SONET)/Synchronous Digital
Hierarchy (SDH) and Metropolitan Area Networks (MANs). SONET
is the international standard for high-speed data transmission
via fiber optic cable over long distance, while MANs operates
within a smaller geographical areas.
B. Optical Networking Modules
Optical networking products serve as key building blocks
to construct an optical network infrastructure. In one SONET
network, add-drop multiplexers (ADMs) are linked to form
SONET rings for operation at OC-12, OC-48, OC-192 or higher
rates. In another SONET network, a SONET ring is constructed
using S/DMS nodes, cross-connect, or digital switches.
C. Optical Components
Key components are used to build optical systems, which
include fiber amplifiers, optical circulators, couplers,
wavelength filters, isolators, tunable lasers, and modulators.
Wavelength Division Multiplexing (WDM) Systems encompass
components such as filters and multiplexers.
D. Manufacturing of Optical Products
To convert theoretical optical concepts to commercial products,
conventional semiconductor process fabrication techniques
or custom processes are used to manufacture an optical product
and MEMS. Process layers, such as polysilicon, can be used
to fabricate optical surfaces. An objective is to leverage
existing semiconductor process techniques in order to reduce
the complexity and costs in manufacturing an optical product.
Optical companies are entering uncharted territory with
advanced optics integrated with electronics, mechanical,
and network protocols. Feasibility of manufacturing of optical
systems, products, and components adds another dimension
of complexity in reducing a design concept to practice without
undue experimentation. Broad patent claims that capture
forward-looking optical concepts can be invaluable to a
company in its intellectual property positioning against
traditional and new competitors.