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Interview: Tabrez Ahmad of Microsoft

Tabrez Ahmad of Microsoft and the chair of the IPR committee of the Manufacturers’ Association for Information Technology talks about the need for active IP licensing in the IT industries, and why multinationals need Indian SMEs to produce their own technologies.

Q: What is your role with the Manufacturers’ Association for Information Technology (MAIT)?

A: I am the chair of the IPR committee of MAIT. MAIT acts as an industry group for players involved in information technology devices, such as smartphones and tablet computers. The membership is made up of not only hardware manufacturers, but also software companies and others related to IT.

I was concerned when I first accepted the position because there was a conflict of sorts among MAIT’s members. On the one side you have the big multinational companies like HP, Dell, and Microsoft, and on the other, you have Indian SMEs. The big multinationals are doing a lot of patent and IP work, but that can’t be said about the SMEs. In the last four or five years, I believe that the patent applications among them did not even reach double digits. The IP scenario was very backward.

This is a problem for a number of reasons, but especially in IT. If you look at a smartphone or tablet, it has hundreds of patents, as well as a number of design patents. Each product is very IP-centric. In order to serve your companies, you need to have access to this technology for your product.

This is the situation that MAIT is trying to address. We are trying to build a framework that helps these SMEs to develop and protect their IP. If they are to be involved in the IT market, they have to be more aware of the importance of IP and licensing issues.

Q: Why are these SMEs not patenting their technologies?

A: I think costs and basic awareness are major obstacles. Even where an SME may be aware of the need to patent their technology, many are resource starved, so the patent system can seem daunting and the costs may appear prohibitive to them.

A more specific problem is application pendency. Patents are usually not awarded quickly, sometimes taking four or five years. This in itself is a huge cost for an SME. Similarly, trade mark applications can get costly because the system is not as efficient as it could be.

For example, if a company applies for a trade mark and an opposition or office action arises from it, they do not get a notice of it; the applicant is responsible for tracking it. If you are a large company like Microsoft or HP, this might be feasible, but can be very costly for a small business.

Awareness about the need for IP protection as well as know-how as the system is also sometimes a problem. The patent process is very complex and MAIT is trying to address this by helping to educate them and provide support. The larger companies in the group are trying to help out and lend some know-how and expertise to these Indian SMEs on how to use the IP system.

"If the Indian Patent Office simplified the filing process and make it more efficient, it will help a lot."

Q: What interest is there for larger companies to help these SMEs?

A: In IT no one company can do everything and you need many players and partners involved. We are trying to grow the market, and it benefits everyone to spur technology development and licensing among the companies in this space. If we can build more IP into the system, the whole industry will grow.

Q: What can the government do to help SMEs in this regard?

A: If the Indian Patent Office simplified the filing process and make it more efficient, it will help a lot. Patent pendency is very long, which is due in part to the lack of infrastructure. I think the people working there are trying to do good work, but they need more autonomy to respond to the problems and make improvements.

By addressing these problems, all will benefit, including multinational companies. SMEs are on the government’s mind because they need to be involved in the IT market. However, some multinationals are giving up on coming to India because of these problems. If they can solve these issues, then it will attract some of them back into the market.

Q: The DIPP had been gathering feedback about whether utility model patents may help foster innovation. Do you think those will help?

A: I don’t think so. Given that lack of infrastructure and resources is a problem, utility model patents will just put even more pressure on an already crumbling situation.

Q: What else is MAIT doing to help SMEs protect their IP?

A: We are trying to create a framework to encourage licensing of IP and setting standards for IT. As I mentioned earlier, the long term goal is to get more players involved and to grow the market. We are working with the Department of Electronics and Information Technology (DEIT) to recommend a framework for this licensing and standards setting. We’re still in the early stages so we’re not certain what the final result will be. It might be something like an IP exchange that facilitates licensing but we are not sure right now.

Whatever the framework is, it must have a number of qualities. First, it has to be driven by market dynamics, not a mandate. If companies are forced to do things like give up their IP, they will not participate.

"The larger companies in the group are trying to help out and lend some know-how and expertise to these Indian SMEs on how to use the IP system."

Second, the system has to be impartial; it cannot favour certain players. For example, if we have a framework that involves valuation services, we will make sure that it is fair to all players involved. So if Microsoft participates in this framework at the end, it will be just one participant among many. My work here is as chair of the IPR committee, not advocating for Microsoft.

Q: Will the framework address standards and FRAND issues?

A: Yes. IT often involves numerous standards that involve patents. As I mentioned before, the framework has to be fair and has to involve voluntary participation. The government of India understands the importance of this as well.

About five years ago, the government was talking about setting standards for its electronic government system, technologies which would give citizens more access to their government and information as part of a vibrant democracy. The initial plan was that those who provided the technology would have to give up their IP rights. After discussions, the government realised that this would not work. If there was any good technology used, the rights owner needed to benefit from it. The government proceeded to adopt FRAND/RAND terms and it understands this now, and that when setting standards, the rights holders have to benefit and their participation has to be voluntary.

This is understood in our discussions as we develop the framework. Large rights holders like Microsoft, Qualcomm and a number of major telecommunications companies are all participating in this discussion. Similarly, the Indian companies know that to participate, they will need to have their own IP to contribute.

Tabrez Ahmad will be speaking at Managing IP’s India IP & Innovation Forum on March 7 in New Delhi. To register, click here.

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