What are patents worth? If one is to believe what was reported by The Economist in its August 3, 2013 issue ("Supermajordammerung"), the answer may be, at least for the huge integrated international oil companies, or "supermajors" (think Exxon or Royal Dutch Shell)—"less than you might think". The thrust of the article is summarized by its byline: ''The day of the huge international oil company is drawing to a close." The piece then goes on for three pages to support this conclusion. It is not our intention to evaluate the correctness of this overall conclusion. Rather, our focus is on the question—how does the article address intellectual property, in general, and patents, in particular, in reaching its conclusion? With an eye towards the role of patents and IP in the context of the present and future prospects of the supermajors, the gist of the article is as follows.
1. The supermajors are increasingly dependent upon oil reserves that are more difficult to access. "Their size know-how and experience serve the companies well in such plays," the article observes. However, these companies are expending a greater share of their money "to produce less and less global oil output.
2. Growth in demand, if it is to happen, will take place in the emerging world. However, efficiency in vehicle performance and the availability of alternatives mean that demand for oil for will not materially increase, if at all.
3. Moreover, so-called "national oil companies" (NOC) now make up six out of the ten largest oil companies in the world. As reported, "[s]ome of the NOCS still lack the know-how and the capital to get to their oil on their own, and thus seek out supermajors to help. ….But others can do everything for themselves …, they have learned what the supermajors have to teach them.
4. In addition, the NOCs are acting increasingly like oilfield service companies (think Haliburton or Schlumberger). Indeed, some are supporting in-house service-like firms "to offer other NOCs the know-how that once came from the big international oil companies.
5. According to the article, the supermajors have few viable options short of slimming down (becoming "smaller, fitter oil firms"). That said, "[r]eviving unique in-house technology might help."