How to use standards contribution data to understand SEP portfolios
Technical standard contribution data can drastically change how a technology, portfolio or competitor is viewed. An analysis of a company’s number of contributions shows whether it is leading in standards development. This assumes that companies with the greatest influence (ie, those that have submitted most of the approved technical contributions) will also have the strongest SEP portfolios. However, standards contributions and SEPs cannot be counted equally. Experts in the field emphasise that the main goal of submitting a technical contribution is to develop the best possible standard to enable products in the market. Therefore, some contributions may not describe a technical step that is essential to the standard and a sizable share of technical specifications are not subject to patents. Still, the submission of patented contributions allows SEPs to be incorporated into standards. Contribution data therefore provides key information to understanding the competition for connectivity technologies.
Who is leading the standards development race?
Standards contribution information is typically not hosted on the standards organisation’s website but is available within the standards consortia that develops the standard. IPlytics gathers all submitted contribution information in full text and creates a direct link to the contributing company. Figures 1, 2, 3 and 4 provide an overview of the top 15 companies that develop standards and contribute to cellular, wireless and video compression technology. Here standards such as 4G, 5G, Wi-Fi 5 or 6 and HEVC or VVC are all subject thousands of SEPs. Contribution data for such standards is a starting point to understand SEP ownership.
Figure 1. Number of submitted contributions at 3GPP (2G, 3G, 4G and 5G) 1998-2021 per company
Figure 2. Number of submitted contributions at IEEE (Wi-Fi 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7) 2000-2021 per company
Figure 3. Number of submitted contributions for video standards AVC, HEVC and VVC 2001-2021 per company
Figure 4. Number of submitted contributions for IETF standards 2012-2021 per company
Standards consortia such as 3GPP, IEEE, JVT (AVC), JCT-VC (HEVC), JVET (VVC) and IETF are contribution based, which means that member companies submit technical proposals for inclusion in the standard. Alternative solutions are often proposed by several members. These competing proposals are either rejected or approved by all members. The member voting follows a consensus agreement approach and is based solely on the technical merit of the contribution. Approved contributions are typically followed by suggestions for improvements or changes, which are then voted on. The resulting final specifications are therefore reviewed by hundreds of global experts. The experts usually work for companies that are competitors in the market. Standard consortia are thus both collaborative and highly competitive. Due to its principle of consensus decision making, it requires considerable research and investment to make technically meaningful and convincing contributions that are accepted, approved and incorporated by all members (if consensus is not reached some decisions also follow majority voting procedures). Companies can only gain credibility by regularly participating and developing the best specifications, which allows them to bring their own developed – and sometimes patented – technologies into the standard. The counting and analysis of submitted standard contributions shows how much share and influence companies have in the development of a standard subject to patents.
How to refine and count standards contributions
Standards consortia publish all contributions of its members. The parsing of contribution documents allows the associations between the standard contributions and the companies that have submitted the proposal. Figures 1 to 4 provide an overview of leading positions for the different technologies. However, contribution data must be refined and well understood to make sense of the contribution counting. Contributions can be divided into:
- type (eg, work item, change request, input, output document or draft);
- category (eg, addition of feature, correction or editorial or functional modification); and
- status (eg, agreed, approved, incorporated, noted, or rejected).
The type of contribution demonstrates the magnitude of how the contribution influences the final standard. For example, a work item represents an initial idea for a new specification, while a change request suggests a change to an existing standard project. The category defines whether the contribution is about a new proposed technical feature or a formal correction. When counting contributions as indicators for technical leadership, it is vital to exclude non-technical categories. Finally, contributions must go through a review process where the members of standard working groups vote and decide on approving and incorporating a contribution. In order to technically cluster contribution one can further relate contributions to technology generations, such as 3G, 4G, 5G or Wi-Fi 4, 5 or 6. Also, contributions originate from standards working groups that typically work on a working group-specific technology topic. Finally, one can relate contributions to releases as follows:
- generation (3G, 4G, 5G, Wi-Fi 4, Wi-Fi 5, Wi-Fi 6, AVC, HEVC, VVC);
- group (RAN 1, RAN 2, SA 1, SA2, CT1, TGax, TGn, TGbe, JVT, JCTVC, JVET); and
- release (eg, Release 12, 13, 14, 15, 16)
Due to the collaborative and iterative aspects of standard setting, contributions are often submitted by a group of companies. Typically, one company is the main contributor of the proposal and has peer companies to join and promote the contribution. In this case, the first contributor is the company that provides most of the technology, with the others commenting on and supporting it. That is why one must differentiate between the first contributing company (ie, leader of the pack that initiated the contribution and may contribute the larger technical input) and the supporting contributing company (ie, supporting organisation that agrees and supports but may provide little input).
Recent studies have made use of the abovementioned refinement. This allows to filter and count only technical contributions that have been approved and incorporated to identify the leadership positions for standard such as 5G, Wi-Fi 6 and versatile video coding.
Standards contributions as means to file essential patents
Market leaders in the telecoms industry often strategically align standards development and the submission of standards contributions with R&D efforts, patent prosecution processes, portfolio development, patent licensing and patent transaction practices. The early filing of provisional applications allows standards developers to protect contributions before they are submitted. These contributions – when approved by the working group – are then vital means to integrating patented inventions into the final standards specification.
Standards contributions as early warning systems
Further, standards contributions may function as early warning systems, as contributions are published immediately compared to new patent filings. After the first filing an application remains unpublished for up to 18 months. In comparison, standards contributions that describe new inventions are often published right after the provisional application has been submitted to the patent office. Understanding new standard contributions early on provides insight into what the competition is working on and that may become important for future access to SEPs for relevant standards.
Standards contributions for prior art search
Finally, standards contributions frequently describe prior art to newly filed patents in the communication space. As a matter of fact, most non-patent literature citations of declared SEPs reference contribution documents. Integrating contribution data in prior art searches is crucial for any SEP owner to improving patent quality and robustness to ensure patents are granted can be charted to the final standard and remain valid if challenged.
Standards contributions to understand the future of connectivity
While standards contributions differ in their impact on innovation and are not intended to provide ownership of the standard, analysing contribution data is a useful way to assess the involvement and investment of companies in standards development. Contribution data is especially important in cases where patent declaration databases for certain standards (eg, Wi-Fi or video compression (eg, HEVC or VVC)) are incomplete. Counting standards contributions allows us to understand who will likely own SEPs when companies do not publicly disclose them in the standards bodies SEP declaration databases.
As future technologies that enable connectivity will increasingly rely on patented technology standards, such as 4G and 5G, Wi-Fi, NB-IoT, Bluetooth, NFC, RFID, HEVC, VVC, and many more, IP professionals should not only consider information retrieved from patent filing data, but also analyse standardisation activities through standards contributions or declarations of SEPs to monitor market trends and competition.
IP professionals should be aware that the number of declared SEPs is constantly rising. Here, standards contributions are an early warning system to monitor and understand the future market of SEP licensing. While the market for connectivity type technologies is fairly new, it is now time to be thinking about what a business will need two, five and 10 years in the future and what its patent portfolio will require to support this. Companies outside the telecoms sector should pursue a common strategy for patenting and standards development by using standards contribution data to identify cooperation partner or monitor what the competition is working on.
This is an insight article whose content has not been commissioned or written by the IAM editorial team, but which has been proofed and edited to run in accordance with the IAM style guide.
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