Protecting ideas is a critical complement to developing innovations.
By Brian Klein, director, IP Portfolio Strategy and Development
Two short years after The Boeing Company was founded in 1916, employee James Foley patented a “Controlling Device for Aeroplanes” that allowed pilots to control the engine throttle with their foot while still controlling the rudder. While this technology seems rudimentary by today’s standards, the passion to innovate and make airplanes safe and high performing still resonates. Today, Boeing teammates invent breakthroughs daily that would amaze and delight Foley (after some explanation).
Some 101 years after Foley’s patent, Boeing continues to expend time and money on protecting our intellectual property.
But why? To have more patents than our global competition? Because we like presenting invention plaques to our talented inventors? Because we have a long tradition of protecting our IP?
One important reason we protect our IP is to ensure that Boeing has the freedom to operate within the global aerospace industry. By publicly disclosing our technological innovations, we ensure that others cannot patent our technology first. If that were to happen, it would limit our ability to incorporate our own ingenuity into our products and services.
Beyond our ability to market our products and services, another goal of patenting Boeing technology is to ensure that others cannot copy our hard-earned technology and use it without our permission. While we appreciate the good work of others in our field, the incentive to innovate — to invest in research and development and improvements that benefit customers — depends on an investment return. And with the ease in sharing digital information, the loss of IP to others around the world is a common problem.
We all need to respect the intellectual property of others, in order to have ours respected in return. With this as a basis of the bargain, we patent our technology to ensure that our innovations find their way onto our products and services, rather than others.
Another key purpose of the Boeing invention process has nothing to do with patents. Rather, we hold the majority of our inventions and know-how as trade secrets. Retaining technology within Boeing — where it embodies the essence of how we design and produce our products — is vital. Our legacy of creating awe-inspiring products is supported by decades of techniques and knowledge passed between generations of Boeing engineers and scientists. Our team studies, challenges, tears down and rebuilds these techniques and knowledge as technology and thinking progresses. These critical, evolving trade secrets and their progeny define how we think and define our secret sauce.
But patents and IP protection are not solely competitive in nature. Strong industrywide mutual benefits also result from the pursuit and protection of IP. Indeed, ensuring that ideas are widely shared, reviewed and improved upon by other sharp minds around the world supports a robust and advancing aerospace industry. Through this global competition for innovative, world-changing ideas, we all win — Boeing, our competitors and all of our customers — with more advanced and efficient products and services.
Most importantly, our innovations encourage and inspire the next generation of inventors, ensuring that we in aerospace can recruit and fill the talent pipeline with ingenious and interested people. When they see us doing innovative, amazing things — and respecting, valuing and protecting the ideas that drive them— those entrepreneurs and innovators will want to work here at Boeing and elsewhere in the aerospace industry.
Finally, sometimes protected technology is worth sharing. Maybe our team invents something that turns out to be of little use to Boeing but of great use to others, like suppliers. In other cases, allowing others to use our technology as part of a collaboration may advance the technology more quickly than we could alone. In those cases, a technology license provides a ready means to provide technology to another for use while Boeing benefits from a royalty, a license back of other technology or the speedy development of knowledge.
Whatever the rationale, smart IP protection is developed on a case-by-case basis, tailoring the protection to the technology and the situation. That, at any rate, has been the enduring legacy of Boeing’s technological innovation and IP protection — all while presenting stacks of patent plaques to Boeing innovators.