Three Keys to Effective Freedom-to-Operate Management

Freedom-to-operate is a murky world where the quality of the investigation greatly depends on the skills and resourcefulness of the lawyer or analyst doing the work. Best practices and standards of care are not very well defined and, even when systems exist, they are rarely adaptable to changing needs.

It is our mission at ClearstoneIP to gather, implement, and standardize best practices in FTO and patent risk management. This article is a step in that process and sets forth three basic foundational concepts for effective FTO management.

  1. Well-defined product parameters. For an effective FTO investigation, it is important to define the product or project parameters at the outset. FTO is necessarily carried out with regard to a specific subject. Thus, the analyst should create or ascertain a detailed definition of the product, process, system, or future concept that is being cleared  in order to memorialize the current state of the product. This contrasts with the sort of “invention harvesting” that might be done as part of growing a patent portfolio, where the goal is to identify broad inventive concepts and build on them in creative, but not necessarily actualized, ways. In FTO, the more that is known about the actual product intended to be sold, the more effective the investigation will be. Also, as a product evolves over time, past FTO analysis on that product may change radically. We should document parameters and features at a specific point in time in order to establish a clear historical record.
  2. Patent analysis must focus on the claims. More critically than perhaps any other activity in patent law, an FTO investigation must be centered on patent claims. Prior art patents might include any number of embodiments, alternatives, and everything else under the sun in its specification, but the claims define the exclusive rights. If we can point to a single element of a claim that is not present in the product being investigated, then the claim is cleared and we can move on. There may be some exceptions to this when, for example, we’d want to monitor a cleared patent and its family when the subject matter is particularly close. But the point remains that infringement analysis is all about the claims. Losing sight of this, and using systems that make it difficult to access and act upon claims, can result in inefficiency and wasted time.
  3. A mechanism to tie products to claim determinations. Building on the first two keys, it follows that the investigation would fall apart if we don’t use an effective mechanism to track, memorialize, and manipulate our work product. If we only had one simple product that never changed, this part wouldn’t be too difficult. But as products become more complex, upgrades and modifications are implemented, and product lines grow larger, our need for a robust system to handle the different permutations of product-analysis combinations becomes critical.

There is, of course, much more to the process, such as how to locate relevant patents, how to properly interpret patent claims, when to dismiss patents or merely flag them for monitoring, how to strategically assess relative risk among critical sets of patents, and more. We will touch on specific nuances and more in-depth analysis techniques in future articles.

ClearstoneIP Announces New FTO Platform

ClearstoneIP is proud to announce the beta release of its next generation freedom-to-operate management platform, Clearstone FTO. With guidance and feedback from IP industry leaders, we’ve infused this new web-based application with the ideal combination of best practices, workflows, and collaboration features to bring much-needed efficiency to a critical process.

Some of the core features of the platform include:

  • Product-focused organization of FTO reviews – all reviews for a product easily locatable in one place.
  • Claim-by-claim FTO determinations with integrated patent review interface.
  • Team collaboration – messaging, workflow management, asset sharing, all easily handled between team members.
  • Patent history review – easily see what decisions were made on a patent, in any prior review and any other product.
  • Customizable reporting – user-configurable to report the most essential information.

With state-of-the-art security features, Clearstone FTO makes it simple and safe to access vital information from anywhere. It’s an intuitive and powerful approach to manage and interact with information that was previously relegated to hundreds of spreadsheets scattered throughout organizations.

Click here to learn more.

Accuracy and Speed in Patent Infringement Searching Need Not Be “One or the Other”

“Faster and better results at lower cost!”

A claim so common it blends in with the hum of office chatter. We’d like to believe that patent searches could be turned around within a day or two, but it typically takes much longer.  We’d like to believe that the work returned to us includes everything we need to know.  But, at some level, we sense there are shortcomings.

This is particularly true in the case of freedom-to-operate investigations (FTO).  Searchers often fail to consider certain product features.  Claims are not always afforded their full scope.  And sometimes key patents are just plain missed.  Despite relying on highly competent and experienced analysts, “faster, better and cheaper” just does not seem a reality.

But a departure from conventional methods can overcome the trade-off between speed and accuracy. We can achieve both.  Clearstone Elements is that departure.

Why is there a speed/accuracy trade-off when using conventional search methods?

Imagine for a moment that you have been asked to carry out an FTO analysis.  Let’s also say that, as is often the case, you must complete this analysis under budget, say $3,500.  Assume a billing rate of $75/hour (you have overhead and a boss) and that you’re able to review a patent every 6 minutes.  That means you only have budget to manually review about 470 patents.

This might seem like a reasonably-sized lot.  However, experienced FTO searchers would likely feel that it’s not nearly enough to guarantee a high level of recall (i.e., the ratio of the number of relevant patents retrieved to the total number of relevant patents), say of about 95%.  This will of course vary case-by-case.  But, for many competitive industries, you’d need a starting set in the range of about 2,500-5,000 patents to achieve a sufficiently high recall.

Why must so many patents be manually reviewed in FTO?

Certainly, products don’t typically infringe thousands of patents.  Else, industries would come to a grinding halt.  Indeed, out of a robust set of patents to be reviewed, a searcher is likely to only uncover a handful of relevant ones.

The short answer to the above question is that it’s very difficult for a searcher to anticipate whether a patent is relevant without actually reading and understanding its legal claims.  Products may be described in countless ways, many of which will go unnoticed to a searcher.  Claims of a patent may be written in much broader terms than used to describe the specific embodiments of the patent’s technical disclosure.  For these and other reasons (see here for more information), conventional search tools are imprecise blunt instruments in the FTO context.  Thus, a broad net must be cast.

It should now be obvious why inaccuracy seeps in.

A searcher will typically approach a search with the best of intentions, considering every angle of attack.  Patent classes will be reviewed, important ones selected and queried.  Key assignees will be queried.  Citation, clustering, and family analysis will be conducted on patents flagged as relevant.  Natural language queries, perhaps using semantic analysis, will also be applied relating to key product features.

These tools are all great at robustly representing technology areas.  However, most likely, this aggregation will far exceed, in number, what could be reviewed under budget in an FTO context.  Accordingly, the searcher will necessarily have to take additional steps to downsize this set.  And this is where it goes awry.  The searcher may do as follows:

  1. limit all results by requiring the inclusion of certain key terms;
  2. exclude unknown or small-scale assignees;
  3. exclude patents based on Title, Abstract and/or Drawings; and/or
  4. limit patents by relevancy score cut-off (if relevancy scores are provided).

These processes are generally arbitrary in nature and bare little correlation with relevance.  They are simply not sound bases for reducing a large aggregation of patents in an FTO search.  Inevitably, they cause omission of critical patents.

How does Clearstone Elements overcome this dilemma?

Clearstone Elements is a fundamentally unique search platform.  In Clearstone Elements, associations between patents and technical attributes are memorialized, forming specialized data files called workspaces.  Notably, these technical attributes are associated with patents on the basis of their claims and using human analysis.  These attributes (or elements) are then presented to a searcher as an interactive taxonomy.  A searcher may than effortlessly eliminate swaths of patents from a robust patent set by selecting elements not embodied by the product undergoing search (more on this process here).  In contrast to the arbitrary procedures discussed above, the Clearstone process is objective, reliable, and deliberate.

In fact, current users of Clearstone Elements are typically able to reduce a robust patent set by 90-95%.  This means that, once a workspace is put in place, provided the same constraints as in the above example, a searcher using Clearstone Elements is actually able to objectively consider upwards of 4,700-9,400 patents.  We are essentially empowering searchers to cast significantly broader nets with significantly reduced manual effort.  By replacing the conventional tools that are blunt and arbitrary with Clearstone Element’s logic-based reduction process, “faster, cheaper and more accurate” is no longer an empty promise.