IP conferences: And what if you are not the GC of a multinational company?

Along with many Kat readers, I followed the Kat reports from last week’s Fordham conference with
great interest. Among those that particularly grabbed my attention were the reports from the session that featured general counsel (GCs) from leading companies discussing IP matters, here and here. But, in reading these reports, this Kat found himself wondering why it is that IP conference organizers invariably seem to load such sessions with GCs or senior IP persons from market leaders, often multi-billion dollar entrenched incumbents.

Don’t get me wrong. This Kat would love to have a Rolodex full of GC contact details. Still, when I think of my own legal practice, there is a broad swathe of my clients whose day-by-day IP experience is fundamentally different from those encountered by these GC’s. What might be best IP practices for IBM will not likely be the best IP practices for a small start-up—the respective circumstances are simply different. More generally, the IP concerns of such a start-up may well be fundamentally different from those of Microsoft. And yet, one is hard pressed to find leading IP conferences that strike a programme balance between the view from the multi-national GC and that of a spokesperson for the IP needs of the start-up (or even an established small or medium-sized company with substantial IP considerations of its own)?

So I asked the question: why do these types of programs continue to flourish? The following thoughts come to mind:
1. There is a general fascination in hearing what is on the mind of market leaders about IP, even if there is no direct relevance to one’s own IP practice. We all seem to like to find out what the stars are thinking; why should IP be any different?

2. These companies represent potential acquisition or investment partners. This is especially so for hi-tech start-ups. As such, it is useful to hear their IP perspective. While not immediately relevant, such information might prove useful in the context of future acquisition or investment discussions.

3. One might be able to create a relationship with the GC, which could lead to future business. Clearly, both sides understand the game going on here, but if there is a mutual interest in doing so, the opportunity can work to their mutual advantage. Indeed, depending upon the IP conference involved, the presence of GCs and corporate IP persons on the programme might ultimately affect one’s decision to attend.

4. The aura of the programme is enhanced by the presence of such persons. Irrespective of the substance of the programme, the fact that the GC of multinational XYZ company is willing to take time to participate sends a message to potential attendees about its “quality”. This Kat has been involved in organizing IP programmes over the years and he can attest that this is a major consideration.
That said, this Kat thinks that the IP world has paid a bit of a price for continuing to offer “the view from the GC”-type of programme. As Clayton Christensen, here, so brilliantly taught us more than a decade ago, here, disruptive innovation seldom comes from successful and established multinationals, because to adopt such a disruptive technology would likely threaten the current business of such companies. Wonderful it would be to have representatives of such a company on the same podium with the GC of the company it is hoping to disrupt. But this is not likely to happen, because it is not really in the interest of either the IP programme organizers, the multinational, or the disrupter, to do so, each for its own reasons.

Moreover, even if most companies will never be “disruptive”, small and mid-size entities (SMEs) make a substantial contribution in the aggregate to economic activity and, in doing so, create various forms of valuable IP rights. The relative invisibility of spokespersons for such companies from the speakers’ podium of high-profile IP conferences, which typically strive to reach the IP elite, distorts the nature of the public discourse about the role of IP in technological and economic life. The public knows what it hears. By shunting such IP spokesmen to perceived second tier programs, it creates a “sound of silence” for such persons at high-level conferences. As such, it sends a tacit yet powerful message that the IP concerns and thoughts of such persons enjoy only second-class status—au contraire!
IP conferences: And what if you are not the GC of a multinational company? IP conferences: And what if you are not the GC of a multinational company? Reviewed by Neil Wilkof on Friday, May 02, 2014 Rating: 5


  1. I suspect the GC's of large companies are very will informed about IP and what they want from the IP system. That means they'll be good speakers. SMEs probably don't have comprehensive knowledge, and many struggle with IP, never mind really understanding the system or how it could be changed to better address their needs.

  2. Neil,
    In a couple of weeks some 10,000 trademark practitioners will descend on Hong Kong. Very few will attend lectures. The in-house counsel are there for a free holiday and the private practitioners are hoping to find themselves mingling with an in-house counsel of a big multinational who is looking to transfer an extensive portfolio to a friendly practitioner in his home jurisdiction. Everyone is selling nobody buying.
    It is the possibility of hooking the GC or corporate IP counsel that is why everyone goes to INTA. Unfortunately, most of us will return disapointed.

  3. I've been to many such conferences, usually in Silicon Valley. At other companies small companies are represented by either venture capitalists or by lawyers who have all sorts of clients.

    That said, you make a good point, one that I made in an op-ed a while ago. Much of the current legislative agenda in the US is being pushed in the name of startups, but it is being funded by the likes of Google. That, to me, has always seemed suspect.

  4. This is perhaps a view slightly tainted by life's experience, but could it be that GCs of big corporations find it easier to bask in the glare of publicity than staying at home and getting on with what they are really meant/paid to do?

  5. Michael Risch @ 12:59,

    The entire US patent system is currently suspect, given the Executive Branch refusal to follow the normal procedures for having a leader of the USPTO that has been properly vetted by the legislative branch.

    The USPTO is currently being run by a shadow-unnamed star chamber with the obligatory puppet of Michelle Lee. There are many signs to the critical eye that the Executive Branch has been captured by the likes of Google, from private off-the-record meetings with lobby groups to the beta code of this past January reflecting anti-"Troll" measures keyed to large corporate influencers.

    What I find amazing is how this does not draw the ire of the American press.

  6. Perhaps more IP education is needed.

    Gregory Chandler, Attorney at Law

  7. Anonymous- I'm well aware of the situation here. I don't know that it's as dire as you note, so I would say that "notice" of the press, rather than "ire."

    The truth is that patent trolls (however you're going to define them) are so reviled that there is backlash against the entire patent system, and no one notices that the loudest voices are being funded by those most likely to infringe.

  8. Michael Risch @ 2:56,

    Does no one in the US notice that "the backlash against the entire patent system" is exactly what those who coined the term "Troll" want?

    The fox is in the henhouse.


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