Are Patents on Interfaces Impeding Interoperability?

Interoperability, Intellectual Property, Competition Policy and Antitrust, Patents, Networks, the Internet, and Cloud Computing and Networks and Infrastructure

Article Snapshot


Pamela Samuelson


UC Berkeley Public Law Research Paper #1323838, 2008; Minnesota Law Review, Vol. 93, No. 6, pp. 1943-2019, 2009


This paper asks if patents on communications technology make it hard for firms to build products that work together.

Policy Relevance

Patents might not interfere with interoperability as much as some fear; policymakers can address problems through patent reform.

Main Points

  • In order for computer programs to work in conjunction with one another, it is necessary for them to be programmed in such a way as to allow them to properly communicate and function together. This interoperability amongst information and computer technology is largely considered beneficial, as it promotes completion, innovation, and customer choice.
  • Often it is in a company’s best interest to create interoperable systems, making it as easy as possible for developers to create new programs. In order to do this, firms often either do not assert IP rights over interface technology or license such rights on open terms.
  • However, some firms seek to gain an advantage by limiting the individuals and companies who have access to their interface technology. Protecting this technology is done primarily in two ways.

    • Some firms protect their interface technology via trade secrecy. The extreme difficulty of reverse engineering these products makes secrecy an effective tool for preventing use by unlicensed companies.
    • Other firms patent their interface technology in order to use the patent as an offensive tool, preventing others from creating compatible technology.
  • Many policy makers have suggested that regulation and reform is necessary in order to prevent this type of offensive patent use. To date, more than twenty policy responses have been proposed or implemented in an attempt to prevent companies from using this type of blocking patent.
  • A review of these different polices suggests that there is less need for strong regulatory measures than has been previously espoused by commentators. Patents are, in many ways, preferable to trade secrecy because in order to obtain the patent, the parent company must disclose the details of their interface technology.
  • Instead of regulation, subtle patent reform can be used to limit blocking. Patent rules should be tailored to promote interoperability by requiring, among other things, meaningful disclosure of the interface techniques.

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