The Journal The Authority on Global Business in Japan

Creating something new always involves a level of risk, and protecting your ideas is important. The rules and laws for protecting intellectual property (IP) have become more complex as artificial intelligence (AI) and the Internet of Things (IoT) become the hot topic in the technology industry.

In Japan, general knowledge of patent and copyright laws is limited, and their importance often underestimated. But, an increasing number of Japanese start-ups looking for the Silicon Valley touch are seeking patent protection.

Frank Fletcher, partner at Outside GC LLC, and Jonathan Hobbs, founder and director of Hobbs & Associates, spoke to members of the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan on March 1 about the importance of protecting IP, and how to go about it.

“When we talk about the future of technology, it’s just everybody’s best guess,” Fletcher began, “but there are some fundamentals that people can follow.”

He highlighted the need for IP law, and said that what can be done with a copyright depends on whether it is protected.
The protection he is referring to is patents. “A patent means you are making it public, you are sharing it with the world to advance the industries, but you’ve got a monopoly on it,” Fletcher explained.

As Hobbs revealed, “Japanese clients are very interested in software and business method patents.” About 300 software patents are filed in Japan each year.

The emerging technologies making the biggest splash are IoT and AI. But as these are in the early stages of development, Fletcher and Hobbs agreed that the time to develop standards is now.

“Standards are going to be set by different groups, patents are going to be organized by different groups, and if you want to sit at the table and get a standard developed around your technology and your thinking, then you really need to have patents.”

Hobbs explained that, in Japan, “there are many issues on the horizon that haven’t even been talked about.” Security concerns surrounding technologies based on open-source software is a big one.

“You need to know what open source is out there, and what it is, if you’re going to be working in new tech,” Fletcher emphasized. “Half of the software [involved] in an enterprise complication is open source, and almost none of it is known to the company; so it’s not being updated and it’s not being maintained. I think that’s the next explosion in the industry.”

Asked when companies should consider patents, Hobbs said they should be built into the development phase.

Fletcher echoed this: “There has to be a culture of development and there has to be a process of responding to ideas. Typically you have a patent committee, and you have a patent attorney sitting on the committee.”

How do you go about protecting something?

Hobbs suggests having an invention disclosure form—especially for those in research and development. This will make the process with the patent attorney more efficient.

As innovative technologies increase, and the start-up industry in Japan opens up, the need for protection of IP is becoming more important. If a lawsuit comes around, the winner will most often be the party who filed their patent first.

Maxine Cheyney is a staff writer at The Journal.