Is it Legal to Obtain R&D Competitive Intelligence?

Knowing what the competition has cooking in their development labs certainly is desirable for decision makers planning their company’s course forward. But is it legal? Action movies sometimes weave industrial espionage into the plot. That activity might make a good story, however, it is not a suitable process for ongoing competitive intelligence for many reasons, including the pitfalls associated with it not being legal!

There are several legal methods of obtaining competitive R&D intelligence, including tracing trends in press releases and attending trades shows. This approach is somewhat hit or miss, but can yield important insights. For instance, HP talked about the coming importance of PageWide in articles and at trade shows many years before its first product announcement.

A more consistent, but not perfect method for gathering R&D competitive intelligence is by consistently examining a company’s patent applications. As new technology is developed, the company makes a decision to either keep the technology know-how secret or to protect the technology via a patent that can exclude others from practicing the technology. If the patent route is chosen, then an application is filed that will be accessible by the public typically within 18 months of its file date. There are many exceptions to this, as over half of U.S. patent applications are published within 12 months of filing. Consider the patent publication timeline in context with it typically taking several years for a technology to move from the Research phase of R&D where technology is created and patents filed, to the Development phase where actual products are designed and produced. Therefore, monitoring patent applications can give a timely alert to the competition’s future product intentions.

However, examining patent applications is not a perfect R&D competitive intelligence method since some technologies go down the secret know-how path and other technologies are patented just to create bargaining chips and do not reflect true product intentions. Some technologies planned for products are not revealed in patents, and other technologies are revealed in patents even though they are not planned to go into products. Still, a methodical analysis of the volumes of patent applications can yield very meaningful insight.

The most powerful method for gaining R&D competitive intelligence legally is to combine analysis of patent activity with that of press releases and trade show presentations. A significant example of this is HP’s press release on their rationale for acquiring Samsung’s printing business that stated access to Samsung’s electronic imaging patents as a reason. A startling result was detailed in Photizo’s report on the acquisition where Samsung had filed thousands of inkjet patents even though they didn’t have an inkjet product offerings! And many of those inkjet patents were related to piezo technology. Does that combination of information from a press release along with a patent study provide meaningful insight into HP’s intentions?

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