Japanese Frontrunners of Intellectual Property Rights - vol.1 Intellectual Property Management and the Future of IPR -An Interview with Dr. Tohru Yoshioka-Kobayashi

By Eunice Lee

June 2, 2016

(Published on November 18, 2016)

Dr. Tohru Yoshioka-Kobayashi discusses key issues related to organizational management of research and development, such as the impact of diversity on team performance, as well as current and emerging challenges in the field of intellectual property. His research encompasses a range of topics related to innovation, the creation process, and the implications of industry-university collaboration.

Tohru Yoshioka-Kobayashi, Project Assistant Professor at Department of Technology Management for Innovation, the University of Tokyo (Former Adjunct Assistant Professor at Institute of Innovation Research, Hitotsubashi University, and Project Assistant Professor at Graduate School of Public Policy, the University of Tokyo)

Q: How did you first become interested in examining issues related to intellectual property (IP)?

Dr. Yoshioka-Kobayashi: My educational background is a little bit complicated and represents a marriage of diverse disciplines. First I started in legal studies on intellectual property rights (IPR) when I was an undergraduate and as a Master’s course student. Then I joined a consultation firm, Mitsubishi Research Institute, and worked for the Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry to support public policy drafting and conducted some fundamental surveys related to IPR issues. For example, I surveyed how companies utilize patents and design protection systems, in addition to what they feel are the future challenging points of the IPR system. Through this process, I became trained in empirical study results, utilizing statistical data and also conducting questionnaire surveys. At the same time, I still continued with qualitative comparative studies, especially in science and technology policy fields. I typically compared between the US and European countries such as Germany and the UK, as well as Asian countries such as China, Taiwan, and Korea. When I was a consultant, I mainly worked with a combination of both quantitative and qualitative studies.

Inventions come not only from scientists and engineers, but also from Industrial designers.

Q: What are some of the research questions you are investigating, and what is the nature of your work?

Dr. Yoshioka-Kobayashi: My expertise is in intellectual property rights management, especially organizational management of research and development. I focus in particular on creation of technologies and industry designs. Although many people believe that IPR management style is solid or not changeable, I thought this idea was flawed. Consequently, I became very interested in learning about IPR management issues more deeply and more fundamentally. So I quit the consultation form and joined the Department of Technology Management for Innovation to learn and think about the future of IPR management. At that time, my interest was in IPR—intellectual property rights. But after joining the Technology Governance Policy Unit at PARI, I realized that the more fundamental issue is the creation of intellectual property itself. Almost at the same time, by fortunate happenstance, I was informally analyzing a small data set when I discovered a phenomenon that is simple yet very interesting: although the common belief among most people is that inventions come from qualified scientists and engineers, a very small number of inventions apparently come from industrial designers. Industrial designers’ backgrounds and skills are very diversified, and they are educated in fields other than science or engineering, such as the arts. And apparently, these industrial designers create very innovative technologies—innovative not in the technical sense, but more from a commercial standpoint, in that they create novel ideas that are quite attractive to consumers and users. So then, I changed my research topic to the creation process of innovation.

One of the first projects in this area that I became engaged in was examining the interactions between Japanese engineers and industrial designers in technology development. These two groups have different cultures. My research hypothesis was that when different cultures come together, this brings some opportunities for innovation. Of course, it is as natural in working relationships as it is in the real world that when diverse people come together and collaborate, conflicts often arise due to differing working languages and cultures. Consequently, such collaborations typically end in failure. Indeed, there are some arguments and empirical evidence that diversified cooperations result in negative impact or outcomes. However, there is the possibility that in a very small minority of cases, these collaborations result in extraordinary outcomes—very excellent innovations—which suggests that maybe it is simply a matter of possibilities. So, I began conducting research on how to improve the possibilities in order to increase the likelihood of achieving such extraordinary outcomes by examining management factors. My hypothesis was that perhaps conflicts arise from internal politics within the group, and thus, the composition of team members is a key element of management. My recent research outcome was that, very interestingly, in Japanese teams consisting of industrial designers and R&D engineers, composition does indeed appear to be a determining factor. I found that when industrial designers are 80% in number—in other words, a 4:1 ratio of industrial designers to engineer—this team brings the most high-impact outputs of knowledge. This is consistent with other case study findings: scholars have found that industrial designers have a weaker position within the organization and have limited authority or power. Arguably, this weaker position necessitates that there be a majority of industrial designers on a team in order to give them sufficient influence.

Another factor in fostering cross-cultural diversified team performance is the use of a third-party moderator. In fact, one of my research projects involves studying the impact and role of university research administrators in Japanese universities. I attempted to describe the conceptual framework related to university research administrators, drawing on previous studies of US and European universities. In my research, I conducted a system dynamics analysis in which I drew a circular model incorporating feedback loops to analyze relationships and address the question of how administrators can contribute to research output.

The aim of universities is to publish papers and make novel scientific knowledge available for public benefit, while the industry prefers to dominate intellectual property negotiations

Q: What do you perceive to be the major problems in the field of intellectual property rights and management today? What are some of the emerging issues that you predict will gain relevance in the future?

Dr. Yoshioka-Kobayashi: Simply put, some of the major problems can be categorized into four main issues: the creation process, creation at universities specifically, utilization, and finally, the protection system.

Q: What are the challenges of the creation process generally, and at universities in particular?

Dr. Yoshioka-Kobayashi: Even today, the creation process of IP such as technology, designs, or other know-how are still unclear and, indeed, not really productive. We still rely on occasionally “happening” upon an innovative idea. However, we need a more detailed and systematic understanding of the process of creation of radical or very novel ideas. Problems in the creation process are especially relevant for Japanese manufacturing companies due to the fact that IP rights, including data and know-how, are incredibly fragmented when we view them in terms of product vision. Different components of a single product—such as technologies and data—are all owned by different firms, and a major roadblock to integrating these fragmented components is that each element has its own exclusive rights, so negotiation between the various firms is necessary. But negotiation skills and capabilities are still not well-developed, and the difficulties of achieving a good settlement represents a significant management issue for Japanese companies.

The second issue is related to the first: now, universities play a key role in intellectual property creation, especially the creation of new technologies. But for universities, the main goal is to publish papers and to make novel scientific knowledge available for public benefit. However, the industry prefers to dominate intellectual property negotiations, and university-industry linkages are consequently put at stress, resulting in conflict between the two parties. When universities join such a monopolized world, then they may lose their reason for institutional existence and their public role. Yet, we also know that universities play a key role in developed industry itself, so effectively managing this relationship is critical for innovation and scientific improvement. Recently in the past two decades, industry and university have attempted to settle this issue by establishing criteria such as conflict of interest norms. Currently, we stand on these norms and accept industry-university linkages as long as they adhere to the established criteria, yet we do not know for certain if such norms are actually efficient or not—indeed, further analysis is still needed.

Q: So it seems that there are many inherent difficulties in managing the relationship between universities and companies. What about the other two challenges, utilization and protection?

The third challenge, utilization, is related to the problem of exclusivity in copyrights or design rights. Today, even a single product like a cell phone contains thousands, perhaps even hundreds of thousands, of patents. Each patent faces barriers like "patent trolls" that requires complicated negotiations and a great deal of effort in managing such issues. Consequently, it appears that the system is becoming increasingly unreasonable and inefficient. It may be argued that the current system based on exclusive rights must be transformed into a more flexible system. Recent discussion and debates regarding "free" or "open-source software licenses" like the copyleft movement are related to this issue.

The final problem is the gap between developed and developing countries. Of course, firms in developed countries such as the US or the EU countries can maintain a stronger position because they have the “weapon” of strong patent powers. On the other hand, most developing countries lack a formal intellectual property system, resulting in failure to either provide or enforce protections, royalties, and rights.

Interviewer: Eunice Lee

4th-Year Student, Department of History and Science, Harvard University (Class of 2017)


  1. Although a "patent troll" is difficult to precisely define, the Intellectual Property Owners Association (IPO) uses the term broadly to refer to a company or business whose primary business activity is "to acquire patents for the purpose of offensively asserting them against other companies" (www.ipo.org, quoted in W.L. LaFuze and R.R. Ruble, "Patent Trolls," The IP Litigator: Devoted to Intellectual Property Litigation and Enforcement 13, no. 2 (2007): 31). Patent trolls are typically small companies, and the term has acquired a derogatory connotation to describe patent owners that, through actual or threatened litigation, attempt to license patents they never intend to practice themselves (LaFuze and Ruble, "Patent Trolls," 31).


  • LaFuze, W.L., and R.R. Ruble. "Patent Trolls." The IP Litigator: Devoted to Intellectual Property Litigation and Enforcement 13, no. 2 (2007): 31-36.