Many significant tech companies experienced dramatic declines in US patent grants, fueling speculation about the reasons why.
While total patent grants were virtually flat, according to USPTO data, down just 53 patents from 326,032 to 325,979, and utility patent grants and applications were up, many top US holders received significantly fewer US patent grants in 2015. Patent reform and uncertainty are the most likely reasons why.
Notable declines in patents received include Microsoft, off 17.2%, Sony, down 23.8% and AT&T, which dropped 31.3% after increasing 14.4% in 2014. The immediate result has been a noticeable drop in US patent grants received in 2015 by information technology companies, both domestic and foreign based. Japanese companies led the foreign declines.
Businesses of foreign origin were issued a record of 52.8% in 2015 US patents. US company patent applications abroad was likely up.
Digesting the Declines
Fifteen of the top 26 US patent recipients (58%) were granted fewer patents by the USPTO in 2015 than in 2014. Even IBM, a leading patent recipient for more than two decades, was down by 0.5%. (See IPO top 300.)
Bucking the trend with net increases among top ten patent recipients include Qualcomm, Google GE , Intel and Samsung Display. Biggest percent increases among the top 300 were from NXP Semiconductor (147.9%), Amazon Technologies (53.3%) and Ford Global Technologies (49.1%).
These are in contrast to 2014, when top US-based patent recipients were all up (see 2014-2013 chart below).
Litigation Down, Too
It is too early to be certain about why the issuance declines among major IT holders are occurring, but if it is in keeping with the recently announced 30.7% drop in patent litigation for the first half of 2016 (see IAM story), a pattern may be emerging.
What this means for some major technology companies is that patent quantity is no longer king. The arms race may be abating, somewhat. It also indicates that US patents mean less today to many companies than in the past, and paying to secure and enforce all but the best few may no longer makes sense. (I will try to cross-check this with US company foreign filing in a future IP CloseUp.)
Decreases in IT company patent filings can be interpreted in several ways.
The Intellectual Property Owners Association (ipo.org) list of top 300 US patent recipients for 2015, published recently, illustrates a downward trend, with some exceptions noted above. It is difficult to tell whether NXP, Amazon and Ford are playing catch up or see an opportunity that others do not. Also, is it that semiconductors, e-commerce and financial transactions, and automotive are inherently more innovative and potentially combative.
“A combination of factors”
Clearly there are many IP rights in portfolios that should never have been issued, and would be invalidated under further review. Also, patents are less reliable than ever, so why bother? It may be that some companies want to rely on fewer, better quality patents, for freedom of action, but it also may be that they see less value in obtaining them or in identifying new inventions.
“It is a combination of factors,” one veteran patent attorney and analyst told IP CloseUp. “Businesses are seeking better patent quality, and
USPTO examinations are getting somewhat tougher. Also, there is pressure on software patents from the courts, frequent PTAB invalidity rulings, and a general anti-patent environment. Weaker corporate balance sheets also have led to cost cutting.”
The America Invents Act and PTAB reviews have made it much more difficult to license patents, and have diminished their defensive value, too. Patents role in some businesses’ corporate strategy and ROI is under scrutiny.
Interestingly, despite the 2015 drop in patents to top holders, corporate patent buying activity was relatively high. Rock bottom prices may have made portfolio purchases attractive to some.
Patent-dubious Google, which has been an active buyer through various programs (e.g. experimental Patent Purchase Program), as well as a more active filer, experienced a 10.9% increase in patents received in 2015. In 2014, it was up by 31.6%.
Image source: patentdocs.com; aulainip.com; statista.com