Jack Ellis

This week it emerged that Steve Jobs told his counterpart at Palm that Apple might consider filing patent suits against the erstwhile wireless device manufacturer unless it agreed to refrain from tapping-up Apple employees for its own workforce. The threat was revealed during an ongoing antitrust suit brought against Apple, Google, Intel and a number of other high-tech companies by ex-employees, who contend that the firms colluded to restrict the movement of workers between them.

As IAM suggested earlier this week, patents are among the best bargaining chips available to businesses. Although patents can enable collaboration between companies, it is also true that their deal-driving power can derive from the leverage they give their owners in the context of legal disputes. As Jobs’ warning shot to Palm indicates, he was well attuned to this fact. But for patents to be considered as the kind of currency that can close a deal or force a settlement, they need to be backed-up with the know-how to do so.

Regardless of his CEO title, Steve Jobs was the exemplary chief IP officer. His zero-tolerance attitude towards those he felt were free-riding on Apple’s innovative efforts may have been headstrong and even risky, but it undoubtedly helped to instil an IP-first culture within his company. More importantly, he understood better than most the nexus between IP, innovation, branding and corporate strategy, and how those factors can be unified to powerful effect.

As an accomplished practitioner of intangible asset management, Jobs also understood well that obtaining, developing and maintaining human capital is the keystone to any business’s success. Without the right people behind them, patents, trademarks and other intellectual assets are as good as worthless. Employees can be major differentiators in the marketplace – and it could spell disaster for a business if its human capital were to end up in the hands of a competitor. Therefore, it wouldn’t be that surprising at all if a group of close competitors entered into a ‘no-poaching’ pact with regards to their employees; and it is also no wonder that such an accord might be called into question by antitrust law. It goes to show just how vital intangibles are to competition in today’s economy.