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 in Optics
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.