© by Ottobock

Intellectual property in the age of Industry 4.0

German inventions are sales hits worldwide. Yet developments in digital connectivity pose unparalleled challenges for the existing rules on intellectual property which need to be solved.

• 1440: Johannes Gutenberg invents the printing press. Education is no longer the preserve of the rich.
• 1859: Philipp Reis invents the telephone.
• 1866: Werner von Siemens invents the dynamo. As a result, the inventor revolutionised electricity generation.
• 1870: Robert Koch discovers the existence of bacteria and founds the economic discipline of bacteriology. • 1873: Levi Strauss develops the first jeans with copper rivets.
• 1876: Carl von Linde develops the first refrigerator in which ammonia was used.
• 1879: Felix Hoffmann invents aspirin.
• 1881: Werner von Siemens invents the tram.
• 1886: Karl Benz and Gottlieb Daimler invent the automobile.
• 1887: Emil Berliner invents the record player.
• 1890: Rudolf Diesel invents the diesel engine.
• 1908: Melitta Bentz invents the coffee filter.
• 1922: Hans Riegel develops the jelly baby.
• 1931: Manfred von Ardenne invents the television.
• 1936: Konrad Zuse builds the first computer.
• 1936: Engineer Henrich Focke invents the helicopter.
• 1951: Electrical engineer Rudolf Hell invents the scanner.
• 1958: Artur Fischer invents the rawlplug.
• 1961: Die Schering AG invents the pill.
• 1971: Mercedes Benz invents the airbag.
• 1987: The Fraunhofer-Institut invents the MP3 format.
• 1997: Otto Bock invents the first prosthesis operated by a microprocessor which once more enables everyday activities thanks to good simulation of natural movements.

These are just a few examples of the German spirit of invention in the past. Germany also continues to research and invent in many areas today. 274,000 patent applications were lodged with the European Patent Office last year. Of these, 32,000 applications (11%) came from Germany. This makes Germany the European champion – and no. 3 worldwide, behind the USA and Japan. It is therefore no accident that Germany has been called “the land of poets and thinkers”. And there is a good reason for this: inventive spirit and creativity are particularly important for Germany as a country that is poor in natural resources. In addition, the internationalisation of supply chains means that the competitiveness of a country such as Germany depends less on price but increasingly on the quality of its products. It is therefore difficult to overstate the significance of intellectual property for Germany as a basis and precondition for innovative capacity and competitiveness. Only if an intellectual good is protected by a property right and the owner of this right can also defend this right is it possible for him to make economic use of this good. The many years of research and development work that precede a patent application, the creation of a brand name which reflects the character of the product and informs the consumer about the origin, the creative process of an author: as a rule these processes are associated with high costs and effort, and can only be mapped in terms of their economic value if the result is guaranteed legal protection.

Patent law

The question of how to deal with so-called standard-essential patents arises more particularly. Modern technical standards in areas such as mobile telephony are protected by hundreds of individual patents. These standards are indispensable for service providers, inter alia because the LTE standard for communication between mobile telephones has been established. This has inevitably resulted in mass use of patents, creating a conflict between patent holders, who are able to exclude others from using their patents, and other service providers in the mobile telephony sector, who need to make use of these patents for their products.


Today we can no longer imagine a life without Internet, computer, tablet and smartphone. But these technical achievements have also led to texts protected by copyright being read, transferred and copied – i.e. valorised – ever more widely. And with this changed use questions arise which are not fully answered by copyright which is characterised by the principle of territoriality. Technical progress in the automotive industry also poses a challenge for copyright. For instance, “connected car” refers to a vehicle which establishes a connection with the Internet via WLAN or other technologies. So-called event data recorders (EDR) keep track of relevant data such as speed or braking behaviour, just like a black box in an aeroplane. The main question that arises here relates to the large volume of data generated. Alongside data protection aspects, it is also important to clarify copyright questions such as whether data collections can constitute data banks, which enjoy copyright protection.

Trademark Law

The distribution of counterfeit products via the Internet is clearly an issue which has been topical for years – and still is. But more recently 3-D printing has posed a challenge for current trademark law. 3-D printing has developed very considerably in recent years and is also becoming ever more important in industrial production. In particular, the industrial use of 3-D printing is strewn with major legal stumbling blocks. For instance, a trademark can be infringed by the production of a 3-D print if the model file either comprises a trademark or itself constitutes a (three-dimensional) trademark. Protected designs can also stand in the way of the production of 3-D models and 3-D prints.

Intellectual property – where next?

All these changes in the digital world raise questions. Should intellectual property in the digital world be evaluated and handled in a completely different way from in the analogue world? Do we need a fundamental change in the existing system of rights for shaping protection of intellectual property? Or should the existing system essentially continue as it is with only individual adjustments being made to take the digital challenges into account? BDI is an important player in this exciting discussion on the future of intellectual property. But even if this multi-faceted discussion is still in its infancy, one thing can already be highlighted: intellectual property rights have a legitimacy in the digital world – even if they were created in the analogue world. We should adhere to the fundamental system for these rights. In principle, the creator or inventor must be granted the right to determine how he uses his work and what happens to it. But it is self-evident that legislative framework conditions must reflect the real-life situation and take innovative changes into account. Hence, adjustments to the challenges of the digital world are certainly sensible and necessary.