The Internet of Things (IoT) and Implications on Intellectual Property

POSTED BY Charles E. Root Jr. MS. and Nancy Edwards Cronin AT 4:07 P.M. February 18, 2016


In 1999 Kevin Ashton of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) gave a presentation to Procter and Gamble titled “The Internet of Things”. His explanation of the concept can be encapsulated in this excerpt from that presentation:

‘…people have limited time, attention and accuracy – all of which means they are not very good at capturing data about things in the real world. If we had computers that knew everything there was to know about things – using data they gathered without any help from us – we would be able to track and count everything and greatly reduce waste, loss and cost. We would know when things needed replacing, repairing or recalling and whether they were fresh or past their best.’ – Kevin Ashton

In the ensuing years, the network of physical objects controlled through the internet has exploded in size and scope creating a vast connected web of things, data and business intelligence. According to the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) there will be upwards of 50 billion things connected to the internet by 2020.

So, while the Internet of Things (IoT) is not new, we are now seeing the refinement of the devices, communication protocols, and data management that was not possible a few years ago. There is a forthcoming convergence of multiple product and technology spaces in this this new world of a predicted 50 billion “things,” and the possibility for growth in markets and IP are enormous.

IoT is a wide-ranging technological space. So we are publishing a short series on IoT and intellectual property (IP) to highlight some opportunities and challenges that we see, beyond the standard scope of everyday articles being circulated. Starting with today’s article, look for these articles in the coming weeks:

  • Part I: The far-reaching landscape of IoT
  • Part II: Who owns the data?
  • Part III: Nest today, where tomorrow?

Part One of Three:

The Internet of Things (IoT) and Implications on Intellectual Property, Part One of Three: The far-reaching landscape of IoT

If you ask someone what the “internet of things” is, the answer varies wildly. It depends upon the source and their perspective. Consulting firm McKinsey defines it as, “Sensors and actuators embedded in physical objects are linked through wired and wireless networks, often using the same Internet Protocol that connects the Internet.” Malaysia’s research center MIMOS (as part of their “National IoT Blueprint effort) defines IoT as, “Intelligent interactivity between human and things to exchange information & knowledge for new value creation.” A Google search offers the definition, “a proposed development of the Internet in which everyday objects have network connectivity, allowing them to send and receive data.” If you just stop and ask someone on the street (perhaps one of the late night talk show hosts should try this!), they will likely name a familiar product, like the Hue light bulb, Nest thermostat or the Fitbit Aria weight scale. However, the IoT is far more than just devices.

Most definitions would agree on the following set of common elements:

  • There’s a “thing”: product, object, sensor, actuator;
  • It’s “connected”: there is a wired or wireless interaction with a network (e.g. internet); and
  • Something “happens”: data is collected, sent, acted upon, decisions are made/enabled.

There’s also an implication and need for unique identification of each “thing” in the IoT. You certainly don’t want to confuse your light bulb with your toaster. Particularly if you are controlling it remotely.

Thus at its simplest level, IoT connotes a uniquely identified thing, which is connected, and enables data collection and decisions to be made.

This covers an absolutely huge span of products, platforms, systems, building blocks and communication protocols. A variety of company landscapes have been constructed and published on the internet. Some include as many as 600 companies! One example is shown below in Figure 1; a specific form of a landscape of IoT companies, “Internet of Things Tectonics” developed by Center Electric (thanks to Andy Smith and Jay Adelson from Center Electric for permission to use).

Figure 1

Point one: The IoT company landscape is huge and quite complex.

However if you look more closely at the graphic, there are categories of companies that allow classification and organization. The bottom half is “The Internet” and the upper half of the graphic shows “The Things.” Clearly both are needed in the IoT.

The layers in Central Electric’s framework depict the functions (and companies) that support needed functions of IoT, including:

  • Infrastructure
  • API/Cloud Services
  • Cloud/Scale/Platforms
  • Hardware and Devices (“The Things”).

Seeing the graphic at this level is less confusing and starts to provide a comprehensible picture of the IoT space. See Figure 2 for a version of the graphic that shows categories without companies.

Figure 2

Point two: The IoT landscape can be separated into higher-level layers of functionality.

Should the existence of so many layers (and therefore so many companies) deter new pursuit of potentially protectable innovation in the IoT space? We think not. Consider all the components and supply chain participants for building, selling and using a smartphone. Companies continue to innovate, invent, and protect in the smartphone space, regardless of the density of IP. But how does one approach the prickly problem of understanding the space via a landscape? Let’s go back to the earlier statement, “It depends upon the source and their perspective.”

We believe that a “landscape” should be a customized graphic, designed to be from the perspective of the company using the landscape. If you are enhancing that custom graphic with added intelligence, such as market and product data, and intellectual property filing and ownership information, the data needs to be custom-mapped to that framework to obtain the most powerful set of insights. This level of intelligence provides an excellent basis for brainstorming, inventing, and IP development. These insights cannot be obtained by using someone else’s framework, or via electronic sorting and categorization of information.

Looking at figure 2, you may not agree with the content and layout for Applications, Platforms & Enablement, and Building Blocks. Good! Develop your own landscape. It will provide much better and specific use for you as a business tool.

Point three: Develop a customized picture from your specific IoT perspective. Use it to enhance your competitive intelligence and innovation process.

Where do you sit in the wide span of the IoT continuum of applications (verticals), platforms (horizontals), and building blocks? Are you working on a new cloud solution that enables IoT devices? Have you developed a new widget that will complement the growing home automation market? Focus the landscape at your level of operation, include your core competencies, technologies and products, and add other functions only to the degree necessary for your business and the company’s objectives. Make it specific, and align it with your business. It can be a significant differentiator in an exploding area such as IoT.

If designing a customized view of your business, aggregating and analyzing competitive data, or developing a pipeline of inventions in the IoT space seems a daunting task, contact us to discuss further.

Now that we’ve looked across the broad landscape of IoT, the next article will discuss a unique and interesting angle to IoT devices and IP: Who owns the data?