Lenovo Q&A on Tech Licensing, IP Law

Safeguarding a company’s intellectual property and competitive pricing require ongoing communication across departments. As director of licensing for Lenovo, Kathryn Tsirigotis routinely engages the multinational technology company’s business and finance groups, as well as product engineers, to navigate IP legal challenges.

“Committing to regular and detailed communication with critical groups and management can highlight issues and concerns before they become problems,” Tsirigotis said. “This has become particularly important as diverse businesses and teams have come together through acquisitions in recent years,” she said, noting Lenovo’s integration of Motorola Mobility mobile and IBM x86 server businesses.

Learn how Tsirigotis reaches across departments to foster internet of things technologies, in emerging and established markets, as well as in 3G, 4G, and LTE.

As you settle into your fifth year, what are your major priorities in helping to lead Lenovo’s worldwide licensing efforts?

Market freedom for our product sales is critical. Through our patent licensing engagement function, I manage the demands from patent licensors and non-practicing entities to minimize business disruptions and unexpected royalty burdens. Therefore most of my effort is defensive. However we have also put some focus on proactively licensing, as a licensor, in selected patent pools for new technologies.

For example, we are a licensor in the Via LTE patent pool. The patent pools, for standards technologies like 3G, 4G, and LTE, allow licensors and patent owners to come together for more efficient, and cost-effective ways of obtaining licenses for critical technology.

What major challenges do you face in navigating intellectual property law across international boundaries—and how have you structured your team to help address them?

In the development of IP law, the biggest challenge has been uncertainty related to standard essential patents and how the courts view FRAND [Fair, Reasonable, and Non-Discriminatory] licensing and the differentiation of licensing valuation in various regions—particularly in mature IP markets such as the United States and Western Europe, as well emerging IP markets such as China and India.

As for team structure, although Lenovo’s recent practice is to deploy quick, lean independent legal teams, we are not isolated functions. I am able to tap into multiple teams to access expertise in legal, business, and regional areas. If there is a new law coming out of China or Germany, for example, I can reach out to regional legal departments, as well as business and finance groups—even our engineers—for a better understanding of those laws and how they may affect our device sales and those sold by our competitors globally.

What best practices have you employed to effectively develop and implement licensing and product protection strategies?

Our practices have evolved over the past five years to address substantial changes. These include those the company has experienced as a result of acquisitions, such as the integration of the Motorola Mobility mobile business and the IBM x86 server business, and changing market and product focus areas. We have found that the key to implementing the best strategies has been to ensure our business, product, and finance teams are closely involved in shaping those strategies.

Through a commitment to regular communication with, and required input from, our finance and product teams, we coordinate potential licensing and product protection strategies, risk assessments, and budget planning—all from a worldwide company level down to specific product lines and market regions.

In a company as vast as Lenovo, how do you engage other departments to more deeply understand and advocate for licensing protections?

The key has been a commitment to communication across departments as well as regions. Consistent communication and persistent education every quarter or more, to and from finance, business, and research-and-development teams is essential.

We have found that committing to regular and detailed communication with critical groups and management can highlight issues and concerns before they become problems. This has become particularly important as diverse businesses and teams have come together through acquisitions in recent years.

In an uncertain global trade environment, how do you and your legal team minimize risk to Lenovo’s global supply chain?

As part of our overall licensing and market freedom strategies, communication with our product and procurement teams has helped us find the design and supply flexibility needed when potential licensing concerns arise and, when necessary, to look favorably on strategically licensed suppliers.

On a personal note, you’ve helped pave the way for women in two critical fields, electrical engineering and IP law—how would you characterize advancement opportunities in these fields?

When I graduated from university in electrical engineering, I was one of a handful of women to graduate with that degree from my university. Throughout college, law school, and my career, I have seen incredible support from professors, colleagues, and supervisors. I am an optimist generally, and I have found that being in the minority in some respects—in both STEM and IP legal fields—has provided opportunities to stand out and take on certain challenges that I might not have otherwise had.

Today, there are tremendous opportunities for young women (and young men) with an education in STEM, which, in turn, provides a broad base of prospects in a wide variety of careers. I have spent time with various programs that introduce young students (as early as grade school) to the STEM and IP legal fields, and [discussed] the accompanying opportunities available.

I believe the earlier we begin introducing and discussing STEM exploration, the more likely we will see young people consider an education in STEM and subsequent career in IP legal. To achieve the best in advancements in technology and industry we will need this kind of diversity.

Looking ahead, what technological innovations are you most excited about, and where can we expect you and your team in promoting—and protecting—those advancements on behalf of Lenovo?

Growing up, I always loved science fiction shows, and it is exciting to see their promise show up in technology today. The new “internet of things,” the term for anything and everything that connects to the internet, is the forerunner to this new technology promise.

We are very excited to be at the forefront of personal, work, home, and technology-powered service solutions that connect through the internet and to each other, and with artificial intelligence, make these devices “smart.”

When talking about intellectual property legal, I get very excited about our ability—and it’s part of our day-to-day job when talking patents and technology—to be right there, shoulder to shoulder, with our engineers who are creating all of this.

Additionally, in IP legal, we’re focused not just on being proactive about getting the right licenses or being involved in the right patent pools, but also in coordinating with commercial attorneys and our procurement groups, so we’re talking to suppliers about licensing and indemnities, to obtain the market freedom necessary in these new technologies.

This profile originally appeared in In-House In Brief, a biweekly newsletter of Big Law Business and the In-House Council. To receive up-to-the-minute news and analysis curated specifically for in-house counsel, subscribe for free todayLearn more about the In-House Council event series.