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Searle Center Investigates Technology Standards

Research sheds light on how technology standards promote innovation

At Northwestern University School of Law’s Searle Center on Law, Regulation and Economic Growth, researchers are creating a series of related databases to collate information regarding technology standards, standard setting organizations and patents. These databases are being made available to researchers on the Searle Center website.  

The data already gathered is helping to provide a better understanding of how inventive activity occurs, how it is commercialized and what might be done to facilitate future innovation. 

“This project is providing insights into the connections between patents, technology standards and innovative activity,” said Daniel F. Spulber, Elinor Hobbs Distinguished Professor of International Business and professor of management strategy in the Kellogg School of Management and director of the Searle Center’s Innovation Economics project. “Technology standards and standards organizations play a central role in innovation economics.” 

Matthew L. Spitzer, director of the Searle Center and the Howard and Elizabeth Chapman Professor at Northwestern Law, said technology standards are an increasingly important feature of the legal environment of innovation. 

“Our project is creating the data sets that researchers at Northwestern and other universities will need to study this critical aspect of innovation,” he said.

Justus Baron, who is joining the Searle Center as a senior research fellow, is conducting research on technology standards. Baron and Spulber are leading an international research team that is studying standards organizations.

“Data on technological standards offer unexplored research opportunities for economic researchers,” Baron said.

A new empirical study by Baron and Julia Schmidt shows that standards offer highly useful indicators of technological change, investment and productivity. One important aim of the Searle Center’s project is to contribute robust empirical evidence to ongoing policy debates. According to Baron, his research in this area finds that “standards that include declared essential patents are subject to more updating and have longer expected lifetimes than other comparable standards.”

Recently, high-profile litigation has led to worries that patents might harm standard setting and technological progress. Baron’s research, however, indicates that industry-driven solutions, such as standards consortia and patent pools, can often appropriately deal with conflicts among members of standards organizations. 

“These mechanisms are inter-related,” Baron said. “It is, therefore, important to collect data covering not only standards organizations, but also patent pools and consortia.” 

A grant from wireless technologies innovator Qualcomm Inc. is helping to fund research on how patents and technology standards are incentivizing technological innovation. In addition, the Searle Center on Law, Regulation, and Economic Growth will host related data sets that will be made available online to researchers.

The Searle Center also is providing access to new data on trademarks from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). The USPTO trademark database gives researchers access to information about trademark registration. 

“The Searle Center is proud to host the USPTO Trademark Case Files Dataset,” Spulber said.  

The dataset contains detailed information on 6.7 million trademark applications filed with or registrations issued by the USPTO between January 1870 and January 2012. This set is derived from the USPTO main database for administering trademarks and includes: data on mark characteristics, prosecution events, ownership classification, third-party oppositions and renewal history.

“We are definitely hitting the ground running,” Spitzer said. 

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