From Titanic to the Internet of Things – the role of patents in communication technology

From Titanic to the Internet of Things  – the role of patents in communication technology

The Covid-19 pandemic has brought home how much we rely on communication technology. Innovations ranging from fibre broadband to 5G and from video calls to cloud file storage help people keep in touch with loved ones. Additionally, they help keep businesses going by enabling their employees to work safely from home.

Marconi Radio and RMS Titanic

It was recently reported that an expedition to salvage the Marconi radio used to signal the distress calls from the RMS Titanic has been postponed due to Covid-19, plus an ongoing legal battle. The Marconi radio is credited with helping to save 712 Titanic survivors by allowing its brave operators (one of whom was never seen again) to send the “CQD” distress signal to nearby ships using Morse code.

Marconi’s first patent application was filed on 2 June 1896. It can still be found on Espacenet, the EPO’s free online database of patent documents. The interested reader is directed to Fig. 1 and its associated description of how the Marconi transmitter and receiver work. Happily, the technical details are very readable for a nineteenth century document!

From Morse Code to Video Calls

We’ve come a long way since the time of Morse Code transmissions. Compare the tens of words which could be sent each minute by a well-trained Marconi radio operator to the real time video calls with a virtual “room” full of friends or colleagues which have become an integral part of socialising or working from home during the pandemic.

The Role of Patents

One constant, however, is the use of patents to help protect new communication technology, though the way in which they are used has changed.
Modern communication devices have become so incredibly complex that, unlike the Marconi radio, it is now very rare for the technology in such a device to be developed and owned by a single party. Rather, players in the communication field today come together to decide on a “standard” by which all different devices should operate. Patents owned by different parties covering the standard are then declared as standard essential patents (SEPs) and are made available on so-called “FRAND” (Fair Reasonable and Non-Discriminatory) grounds to device makers in exchange for a licence fee.
Although the revenue model has been adapted, the principle under which innovation is protected and rewarded by patents has not. A SEP for 5G has the same basic format (i.e. claims which define the legal scope of protection and a detailed description about how the invention might be implemented) as Marconi’s original patent. In a world in which communication technology has changed unrecognisably since the days of Marconi, patents and the role they play in helping inventors make a living from their ideas have enjoyed incredible longevity.
For a chat about obtaining patent protection for your communication technology, please feel free to get in touch with Arun Roy or another member of the Kilburn & Strode team.


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