The Pitfalls of Patent Protection in the Biometrics Market

the-pitfalls-of-patent-protection-in-the-biometrics-market

Blood flowing in your veins – it really is part of who you are.  Two intriguing technologies I learned more about from researching my forthcoming Biometrics for Mobile Devices report were related to vascular imaging modalities – techniques for creating an image of blood flowing in the veins.  Blood flow is unique to each individual, with false accept rates and failure to enroll rates that are just about zero.  So, quite useful.

The two leading vendors in this field are Fujitsu, with its PalmSecure product line, and Hitachi, with its VeinID finger vein product line.  They are not only the leading vendors in the vascular imaging space; they are the only vendors, because each holds the patents for its technology.  Okay, copies of this technology are offered from countries with inconsistent patent protection, but I assume that my readers do business on the up-and-up.  So if you want a vein imaging biometric, you are going to buy Fujitsu or Hitachi, depending upon your use case.  Both companies are global giants, with financial resources and research capabilities to match anyone on the planet.  It is no accident that they hold these patents.

And the products do sell.  In the course of my research, I encountered several biometrics solution providers that will incorporate either Fujitsu’s or Hitachi’s products when it makes sense.  Biometrics solution providers are a pragmatic lot.  They build from use cases and work their way down to specific technologies.  After years of researching cyber security, where the sale often begins and ends with the technology, the approach I’ve seen in biometrics has been refreshing.

But controlling a technology can have its downside.  Many government purchasing processes – including in the U.S. – require at least two competitive bids for any procurement.  If you are the only company selling a given technology, then by rule you cannot offer it to any agency of that government.  Even if agencies want to buy it.

What lies ahead for today’s protected technologies?  Several research interviews cited iris imaging as a cautionary tale.  Iris modalities were protected by conceptual patents until they expired in 2005.   Before then, any attempt to create a new iris image technique was prevented.  Since 2005, more vendors have been able to enter the iris imaging market, although with their own invented algorithms.  The method patents for the original algorithms remain in force.

In the meantime, while iris imaging was restricted to one inventor, other modalities such as fingerprinting, voice recognition, and facial recognition benefited from innovation by numerous inventors.  This has catapulted those modalities to the head of the pack in the biometrics market.  They had a head-start of years compared to iris imaging.

By contrast – consider that Elon Musk and Tesla have made all of their patents open.  From Tesla’s blog:  “Tesla Motors was created to accelerate the advent of sustainable transport. If we clear a path to the creation of compelling electric vehicles, but then lay intellectual property landmines behind us to inhibit others, we are acting in a manner contrary to that goal. Tesla will not initiate patent lawsuits against anyone who, in good faith, wants to use our technology.”

How will Fujitsu and Hitachi manage their intellectual property now and in the future?  That is, of course, their prerogative.  Both possess remarkable technologies and deserve to own those patents.  Both operate with integrity.  At some point, though, their inventions must be shared with the world.  Will that happen in a way that continues to grow and innovate the market for vein imaging?  That is the challenge.

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