Qualcomm and patents

Why does Qualcomm care about patents? Why does any company, large or small, care about patents and the patent policy debate currently taking place?

As Congress wrestles with whether and how to alter the laws governing inventors’ ability to protect the fruits of their hard work and creativity, many companies have sought to have their voices heard or to influence the debate in other, quieter ways. Qualcomm, my employer, has made no secret that we care deeply about the strength and credibility of the patent system. And we want to be completely open about why we care so much.

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The evolution of patent law is important to our business, and patents are important to Qualcomm’s identity as one of the most active inventing companies in the world. Often, when I talk or write about patents I mention the Founders’ wisdom in writing protection for intellectual property into the Constitution, and how patents helped make possible the innovation that characterized American economic growth for more than two centuries. But the story of what patents have done for Qualcomm, while smaller in historic scale, offers no less illustrative an argument.

Qualcomm began with seven people sitting around Irwin Jacobs’ living room thinking about technological problems they could solve in wireless communications long before they figured what products they might produce. The technologies they eventually invented allowed wireless networks to vastly expand their capacity on the same finite amount of spectrum, and then significantly increase the amount and speed of data that can be transmitted. These technologies made it possible for millions, and then billions of people to have cellphones, instead of a limited few. And they made possible the smartphone and the countless mobile capabilities we now take for granted in our daily lives.

To give you an idea of what I mean: One of the myriad problems our engineers had to overcome was how much power a cellular signal loses between the time it leaves the base station and gets to your phone: 130 decibels. To put that loss in perspective, this means that if the signal was the size of the earth when it left the base station, it would shrink to the size of bacteria when it reaches your phone. But our engineers overcame this problem, and your smartphones work because they did.

We could afford to take the time to do the expensive R&D that produces such breakthroughs only because of patents. Qualcomm’s founders patented their early breakthroughs, licensed their patented technologies and then plugged much of the licensing revenue back into R&D. Qualcomm has kept up that virtuous circle for a quarter of a century. And we pride ourselves on the transformative wireless technologies we continue to produce, as well as how much the wide licensing of our patented inventions has contributed to the flourishing wireless industries around the globe. Since 1985 we have spent more than $27 billion on R&D, and we now employ more than 30,000 people, two-thirds of whom are engineers.

Another important fact about Qualcomm: While we are a defendant in plenty of patent lawsuits, we are a plaintiff in none. Yet we have been called a “troll” because we license much of our technology instead of using all of it to manufacture products.

That cartoonish notion of “trolls” and the whole “troll” narrative, rather than empirical data and a solid look at the facts, have been driving the legislative debate on patent policy. And we fear it will produce bad law, dangerously weakening the patent system and preventing small inventors today from becoming a Qualcomm tomorrow.

That’s why I fervently hope that lawmakers will take the time to more closely examine both the purported problems in patent law and the potential consequences of any response they craft. Patents are important. They are the deeds to the intellectual property on which our innovation economy is based. And our innovation economy will suffer if patent protections are weakened.

Self is vice president of Government Affairs at Qualcomm.

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