There's a long running debate about the importance of patent protection in defending innovation. Certainly speed-to-market and agility will often trump I/P protection... And when it comes to launching innovation directly, I fully agree that speed is the most critical component.
But when it comes to in-licensing and out-licensing of innovations and technology, patents and intellectual property become much more important. As our I/P attorney used to tell me when I was a corporate executive looking in license in an invention or technology... "if the inventor doesn't have good protection, you're paying for something that others can have for free". Makes sense, and in my current open innovation services company, Venture2, we definitely review the strength of patents and/or patentability as an important determinant of interest in a new idea.
But there are other ways to protect ideas beyond just patents. Full disclaimer: I am NOT a patent attorney and the following is not to be construed as legal advice (Am I off the hook now?). I've seen and heard several interesting things in recent weeks and months that you might want to consider as you evaluate your own technology or others'.
For example, according to a recent release by Ron Epstein, CEO of iPotential (an I/P consulting firm)...
VC’s seek out patent expertise from companies like IPotential to avoid litigation, a threat that could cost young businesses $500,000 per claim if brought to trial and reduce the probability of receiving venture capital financing. Trade secret suits, on the other hand, cost from $300,000 to $500,000, and thus make intellectual property in the form of a trade secret more attractive to VC investors than a “weak” patent that may be open to litigation.
Here's another example of obtaining strong I/P protection in the form of a 'trademark' from none other than Apple for their iPod. In this MIT Sloan Review article entitled The Shape of Things to Come, Apple was actually granted protection via a trademark for the 3-dimensional shape of its iPod and thumbwheel design.
So while intellectual property protection remains important in creating a 'currency' of open innovation, it's not just about patents anymore.