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Patents: A Valuable Measure of Your Engineering Career

By John R. Platt

Nearly 400,000 patent applications were filed in the United States in 2005, part of a worldwide trend that has seen the number of patents filed annually nearly double in the last 20 years. Why so many patents? Simple: they're valuable. Companies, universities and even individuals make money from them, plain and simple.

But as an engineer, patents have an extra value. For someone like you, they are a quantifiable measure of your importance as an employee and as an inventor.

Let's say you work for a company like IBM. IBM files thousands of patents every year -- in fact, for the last 15 years, IBM has filed more patent applications in the United States than any other company. IBM and companies like it depend upon their patents for their long-term financial strength. Not only do they make their own products based upon their patents, they get to license their patent to other companies, who then pay IBM a fee for the right to use their technologies in products IBM never even touches.

So with that in mind, ask yourself, who are some of the most valuable employees at IBM and other high-tech companies?

That's right -- they're the employees who are generating the most new patents.

In many ways, this is like academic circles, which often use journal publications as a measure of continuing a new professor's employment. Commercial companies frequently use patent filings are an immediately calculable measure of a engineer's value. The more new ideas that end up being filed with that engineer's name, the better.

Beyond commercial value, patents have other long-term roles in your career. Your name will always be on the patents you file, and then on subsequent patents based on them. This can keep your name in the public forefront, and give you valuable bragging rights as the originator of an idea or technology. (Even being a member of the team that developed something new therefore has its value.)

And those bragging rights come into play at other points in your career. The number of patents you have successfully filed can be used as good negotiating material in job interviews, salary negotiations, and other career milestones.

Your previous achievements can even make you more attractive to teams working on their own patents, which might need experienced consultants to help test their technologies, work out the bugs, or even attract attention (and funding) through adding you to their project.

And depending on the company you work for, you might even be eligible for some sort of profit-sharing from the use of your patent. Of course, not every patent is incredibly profitable, but some companies like to reward the engineers that bring them new, commercial ideas. (Check your company's policies before you go demanding extra compensation.)

Your patents have one extra, lasting value in these uncertain economic times. As I said earlier, "patents = revenue." Engineers who generate good ideas and patents can directly impact a company's bottom like. This means you aren't just as good as your last idea, you're as good as all of them put together. When it comes to layoffs, the people generating money-making ideas are the last ones to get let go. That can never hurt.

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