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Not everyone who works in the field of intellectual property understands how important it can be in terms of influencing a market.  Nor do they realise how important it is to take into consideration business and strategic goals when deciding how to engage with the intellectual property system.  One technical field that gives us a good example of this is surgical robots.

Over the past year or so the British and international press have repeatedly published David and Goliath stories about how a “plucky” British company, CMR Surgical, is seeking to disrupt the robotic surgery market.  In operating rooms across the world surgeons and doctors are increasingly turning to robots to perform minimally invasive operations which offer fewer complications and quicker recovery times to patients.

The Goliath in this sector is Intuitive Surgical and their da Vinci system.  The da Vinci system has dominated the surgical robotics market practically uncontested since its launch in 1999/2000.  The da Vinci system has over 5,300 systems installed worldwide, including in more than 70 UK hospitals, and supports revenues of over $3 billion dollars annually for Intuitive Surgical.

One of the building blocks for this stranglehold on the market was Intuitive Surgical’s patent portfolio.  Following a merger with their chief rival, Computer Motion, in 2003, Intuitive has owned powerful patents which allowed them to exclude all other players from the surgical robotics market.

However, patents have a maximum term of 20 years, and the protection provided by Intuitive’s original patent portfolio has started to expire.  Although the initial patents allowed Intuitive Surgical a colossal head start over their competition, new companies such as CMR Surgical are now starting to enter the space.

It should be appreciated that this arrival of new entrants is central to one of the key concepts of the patent system.  The goal of the patent system is to encourage innovation with a quid pro quo – a patent entitles you to a monopoly on the use of your invention for up to 20 years during which time you may build your business free from competition, but once this time has passed the technology is free for anyone to use.

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