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Patent policy for a small company

From: Fergus Henderson
Subject: Patent policy for a small company
Date: 22 Nov 2004 16:54:43 -0800

I work for a small software company in the US.
The company has about 20 employees, but is growing rapidly.
We are currently in the process of deciding on a company patent policy.

There seems to be reasonable (though by no means complete) agreement within the
company that the legal system of software patents is not beneficial to society.
However, regardless of whether or not we support the current software patent
system, that system is the current law of the land, and we must decide how our
company will act within that system.

What advice can the readers of gnu.misc.discuss offer in regard to what
our company's patent policy should be?

Some people within the company are keen on obtaining patent protection of our
ideas for a quite specific reason.  As a small and focussed company, we have
built expertise and capabilities in a few specific areas.  Commercializing
our ideas will often require expertise and capabilities outside those areas.
When we require expertise or capabilities that are outside our focus areas,
rather than trying to develop the necessary capabilities and expertise
ourselves, we seek to partner with other companies.  Often we need to
disclose product ideas to those companies in order for them to be able to
help us commercialize the ideas.  The companies that we partner with are
often very large companies with many thousands of employees.
There is a concern within our company that the companies that we deal with
might take our ideas and use those ideas to develop their own products,
competing with us rather than cooperating with us. Such companies might be
able to invest far more resources into developing the ideas than we can,
and might have far bigger sales and marketing infrastructures, so it might
be very hard for a small company like ours to compete with them.

Non-disclosure agreements are another legal instrument that is often used
for this sort of situation.  However, the companies that we deal with are
often unwilling to sign non-disclosure agreements.  Should we seek to
obtain patents on our ideas in order to encourage these companies to
cooperate with us rather than exploiting our ideas?

Note that these questions are all about what the policy of our company
should be, given the current legal system, not about what the legal
system should be.

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