IP issues in the telecom industry – An interview with Matteo Sabattini

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The telecommunication industry has experienced a rapid and constant growth over the years. Now the 5G technology and the “Internet of Things” are behind the corner, but a number of legal and regulatory issues are being discussed.  We talk about this and much more with Matteo Sabattini, expert in IP-related matters (for his complete bio, scroll down).

Good morning Dr. Sabattini. What’s the weather like today in Washington DC?

Earlier today, it was snowing. Light flurries. Quite unexpected considering that yesterday we had temperatures close to 20 degrees Celsius and spring weather conditions!

Today you are a patent and technology policy expert. What led you into this field? As a student, did you expect to work in this field?

In college, I was passionate about technology and engineering. I had initially envisioned myself as a researcher, an academic or an R&D engineer. And, in fact, that is what I did after I graduated and what pushed me to get a Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering. I got into IP with an internship at a consulting firm in Boston. While I was growing frustrated with the pace and the often-challenging industrial applicability of academic research, I enjoyed the diversity that working on patents gave me. I was learning quickly and eagerly about a new field, where I could still use my technical skills in a much more applied fashion. Through the years, as I was learning more about IP, I gradually moved from pure technical support to business and commercial aspects of the business.

What does an IPR policy expert mostly deal with?

My main goal is to educate regulators and policy makers about the issues my industry cares about. IPRs are valuable assets for many companies of all sizes, and often, through licensing, a vital source of revenues that can be reinvested in innovation. Policy makers look at us as a source of unbiased information, so that the industry can function efficiently on its own. I am generally opposed to overregulation, especially in a dynamic industry that has demonstrated the ability to get together and improve quality of life globally: think about the (re)evolution from 2G to 4G mobile telephony, and the tremendous speed of innovation that collaborative R&D through SDOs (Standard Defining Organizations), like ETSI, has achieved.

What skills are required to work in this industry?

I work at the intersection of technology, law and business. No perfect background exists for this line of work. You need to learn and like different aspects of the industry. I am not a lawyer, but I deal with legal and regulatory aspects of the mobile industry all the times. Many lawyers I met have a deep passion and understanding about technology, although they do not have a technical background. And business professionals must learn how patent law and technology interact, for example, in the context of international telecom standards.

The telecom industry is a regulated sector strongly influenced by IP and antitrust law, where international technology standards play a vital role. In your opinion, is the interplay between these fields of law predictable enough?

Technology standard development is a collaborative process in which companies and universities propose their own technology to change or refine parts of a next standard. Indeed, before disclosing an invention, a large number of these proposals might have been protected by a patent application. Since a standard is made available to the general public, it becomes crucial to manage in an effective way the IPR associated with it. How? Patents that have claims that read on standard specifications or, in other words, claims that would be necessarily infringed by implementing standard specifications in a commercial product are referred to as Standard Essential Patents, or SEPs. SEPs, although they find specific applications in the context of standardized technologies, are still patents, and ultimately a time-limited monopoly giving the patent owner a right to exclude others from using the patented invention. On the other hand, open standards aim at achieving the broadest market penetration through interoperability and participation by the broadest possible base of stakeholders. Hence, at least at first glance, the two concepts – a right to exclude vs. broad interoperability – would seem antithetic and incompatible. In order to solve this inevitable tension between patents and Open Standards, the concept of Fair, Reasonable and Non-Discriminatory (FRAND) licensing terms has been developed and embraced by courts worldwide. FRAND is a compromise to allow the coexistence of SEPs and open standards. More importantly, FRAND is a “two way street” where patent owners commit to granting FRAND licenses and implementers agree to take such FRAND licenses in order to implement the standardized technologies covered by SEPs.

Are there significant legal and regulatory issues to be solved by the legislator in the telecom sector? What jurisdictions are currently looking at IPR issues, and to what extent?

If you look at the mobile industry, there is no doubt that that is a well-functioning, dynamic industry. New entrants and decreasing prices are indicative of an efficient marketplace. FRAND has helped defining a framework that allows bilateral commercial discussions between patent owners and implementers. A recent court decision by the European Court of Justice (ECJ) in a patent dispute between Huawei and ZTE has helped further clarify the requirements and the specific steps that negotiating parties need to follow in a licensing negotiations, and what are the boundaries to obtain an injunction against an “unwilling licensee”. Lower courts across Europe are currently applying Huawei v ZTE to different patent cases, and are helping to further define the ECJ decision. While this decision, coupled with the industry best practices around FRAND, should be sufficient for the industry to thrive with increased efficiency, several regulators around the globe are willing to go a few steps further. For example, some policy makers are suggesting that FRAND should be further defined. Others are trying to identify a methodology to calculate the price of a SEP license. In other instances, the recommendation was suggested that a license should be made available to chip manufacturers and not OEMs (and hence the price of such license should be based on the cost of such chipset, rather than on the value added by the technology to the end user). Unfortunately, these efforts are simply solutions looking for a problem and are, in my opinion, interfering with well-functioning commercial discussions between patent owners and OEMs (editor’s note: for more insights on these developments, see here).

What’s on the horizon for the mobile industry?

The new standard for mobile telephony, 5G, is around the corner, as Korea and Japan are committed to launching 5G demo services already in 2018 and 2020,respectively. 5G will guarantee ubiquitous and flexible connectivity, and it is expected to provide communication capabilities to a variety of objects such as cars, trucks, utility meters, sensors, medical devices. This is the so-called Internet of Things, or IoT, and it is set to change the way we interact with the environment. The emergence of so many different vertical applications for the technology will inevitably shape the patent licensing regime. The communication requirements of a smart meter are clearly very different from those of a car or a medical device, and the use of patented technology, and the associated licensing costs, will differ.

One interesting thing about your job and one boring.

My job allows me to travel extensively, often in amazing places. Unfortunately, I often get to see very little of those places, and spend most of my time in conference rooms and hotel lobbies…

You are supposed to work frequently with external counsels. Say one quality you appreciate in external lawyers and one you don’t.

I like problem solvers. I appreciate counsels who can identify risk, propose solutions and help you mitigate such risk. Counsel should not tell you what to do and what not to do, but rather help you navigate the legal framework. A good lawyer never interferes with business and commercial decisions. On the contrary, she tries to fully understand the issue and advise on the best course of action.

Work/life balance?

Definitely unbalanced towards work, although I make an effort to carve out quality time for family and friends. With the amount of travelling I do, that is sometimes challenging. Planning ahead and being organized and rigorous about my schedule is absolutely crucial.

If you could change one law of your country, what would that be?

I would abolish (or at least reform) the PTAB!

One thing you like and one you don’t of your homeland?

I am a dual citizen of Italy and the US. Although I grew up in Italy, I spent most of my professional life in the US. Hence, I consider both countries my “homeland”. For Italy: I appreciate the ingenuity of the people. Italians are extremely clever, and always find a solution to the adversities that a colossal bureaucracy throws at them. It is difficult to generalize for a vast country like the US, but I generally like the entrepreneurial spirit. Can I be blunt? I really dislike political correctness, widespread in public speech nowadays. Politically correct kills satire and demeans intelligence!

Let’s move now to the hottest issues. What’s your standard dish when you are back home after a long day at the office?

I don’t have a favorite dish, I like many different things. I am definitely a meat person and enjoy a good steak occasionally. With a good glass of red wine, of course!

Are you a morning person or a night person?

I don’t sleep very much, and I tend to wake up early. I like to exercise in the morning, as that leaves me time in the evening to do things I like, spend time with my wife or see friends.

The first three websites you see in the morning when you switch on your PC?

BBC, Corriere della Sera and Linked In.

Favorite place for winter and summer holidays?

In winter, the Dolomites. They are special, and the skiing is always exceptional. I always spend a week with wife and friends around New Year’s Eve in Cavalese, close to Trento. I have recently had the opportunity to ski in Japan: the snow was phenomenal! In summer, we like to explore new places. We especially enjoyed Mexico and Spain. Although we have not decided yet, we are considering either South America or South East Asia for this coming summer.

The last book you read and the book(s) you are reading now?

The last book I read was “Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don’t” by Jim Collins. Currently, I am reading “A Triumph of Genius: Edwin Land, Polaroid, and the Kodak Patent War” by Ronald K. Fierstein. Very insightful. It proves that patent disputes have always existed in a dynamic, innovative technology space.

Hobbies?

My wife and I love to ski, and we do that as often as possible in winter. I enjoy cooking, although I did not have a lot of time to devote to cooking this past year.

What piece of advice would you give to a young patent professional?

Find a good mentor, read as much as possible to stay up to date on legal developments, and never stop learning. Network as much as possible, because there is no better way to grow than to learn from more experienced professionals. Do not forget that we work in a somewhat niche industry, where you will get to know your peers rather quickly. This is a doubled-edge sword: you will grow your network very quickly, and the opportunities to advance abound. But trust and reputation are also important, and outsiders generally have a harder time to get accepted in the patent community.

Bio

Matteo Sabattini has years of expertise in IP-related matters, and his background combines business, policy and technical skills.

Currently an independent consultant and expert, he will join Ericsson’s IPR Policy office in Washington, DC, later this month. He served as the CTO of the Sisvel Group and CEO of Sisvel Technology until February 2017 and he is currently actively participating in a number of IPR policy efforts at fora such as NGMN (Next Generation Mobile Networks Consortium), ITU, ETSI, DVB, and IP Europe.

Before joining Sisvel, he worked at InterDigital, Sisvel US and Global Prior Art

Matteo is an IEEE Senior Member, a Beta Gamma Sigma Lifetime Member, a member of the MIT Enterprise Forum and a member of the Licensing Executive Society. He has always been active in the community, and currently serves in the board of directors of a local charitable organization in the DC area. He is also an avid skier and a mediocre surfer.

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