Patents and licenses have given exclusive rights to innovators and creators since early 500 BCE. Ancient Greece was one of the first civilisations to recognize that if an individual invents or further refines any aspect of luxury, a patent will protect his/her sole right to the revenue it generates. Since then, patents have differentiated the innovators from the me-toos. The intellectual and innovation credibility of a brand and individual have been so deeply associated with patents in recent years that the most exciting headlines from the technology ecosystem are often either about these inventions, or brands fighting for sole rights over them.
Today, thousands of patents are granted every year in the US alone. Approximately 30 percent of applications for these are filed by corporate members of the Intellectual Property Owners Association (IPO), a trade organisation of owners of intellectual property. The IPO counts over 200 companies and 12,000 individuals as partners and associates. As we wrap up the year, we take stock of the IPO’s top 5 patent owners of 2016. Let’s see how they performed in 2017.
IBM has consistently been rated as one of the top innovators in the tech ecosystem for the last 24 years. That’s not a mean feat by any stretch of imagination. In 2016 too, it was the top patent owner, with 8,088 patents in its name, close to 8 percent higher than the year before. Most of IBM’s recent patents have been in the area of machine learning.
In 2017, IBM’s most significant patents came through in the early months. In March this year, the company announced that it had patented a cognitive system to manage self-driving cars. This was a machine learning system that can dynamically shift control of an autonomous vehicle between a human driver and a vehicle control processor in the event of a potential emergency, providing a safety measure that can contribute to accident prevention.
Following close on the heels of this announcement, IBM also patented machine-learning models for drug discovery. These models predict therapeutic indications and side effects from various drug information sources. IBM Research has implemented a cognitive association engine to identify significant linkages between predicted therapeutic indications and side effects, and a visual analytics system to support the interactive exploration of these associations.
It is not news that Samsung patent grants are among the highest around the world as far as sheer numbers are concerned. Since 2010, Samsung has won over 44,000 US patents. Over 4,000 have been in 2017 alone. The company’s patents are largely focused on fine-tuning and designing the next generation of consumer devices and appliances.
In 2017, Samsung’s key patent was directed at figuring out a solution for the issue of rigid components in smartphones. Its objective is to eventually deliver a genuinely bendable phone, leaping years ahead of the current edge-to-edge display. Other patents from Samsung through this year include incremental design and functional elements like vacuum cleaner brushes, refrigerator storage containers, curved display apparatus, video encoding, AV pairing, and many more.
In 2016, Canon ranked third globally in the number of patents it was granted. With 3,865 patents to its name in 2016, the company was just short of IBM and Samsung and was the only Japanese brand in the Top 5 list of patent holders last year.
In 2017 too, Canon’s patent application for a giant flip screen in DSLR cameras was spoken about a fair bit. Illuminated buttons on DSLR cameras were yet another Canon patent in the news quite a bit in 2017.
Ranked fourth in IPO’s top patent holders of 2016 with 3,414 patents to its name, Intel has been living up to its innovation DNA. In the last decade or so, the company has spent more than USD 100 billion on R&D, with over 12 billion in 2016 alone. A total of 55,000 patents have been granted in the name of the company.
In 2017, Intel patented a technology that is going to be a blessing for clumsy, absent-minded phone addicts (like yours truly). Intel calls it a “low-power voice trigger for finding mobile devices”. The audio processor, independent of the device’s main processor, will listen in to a predetermined phrase and play a tone on the device to help the user locate the phone. It can do this even when your mobile device is switched off or in standby mode. Intel’s other patents for this year include incremental advancements in multicast content delivery, free-space finger recognition, power saving techniques for graphic-related workloads, and several others.
Google has been on the back foot a bit this year despite its work in new areas like self-driving cars and AI, and the arsenal of applied and issued patents it procured from Motorola, worth roughly USD 4 billion.
That being said, it still held on to its top 5 ranking going by the number of patents granted in 2016 – a total of 3,267. With close to 15,000 patents since 2010, Google still ranks ahead of other innovators like Apple, Amazon, and Facebook. The number of patents awarded to Google between August 2016 and August 2017 however dwindled by almost 14 percent. While Amazon picked up the pace despite traditionally lagging in the patent race in the last few years, Google fell behind a little.
One of Google’s key patents in 2017 was an infrared sensor for sleep tracking. As health and wellness become hotbeds of innovation, Google went one step forward in removing the inefficiencies of erstwhile sleep tracking technologies. The infrared sensor made it possible to measure sleep without being in contact with the user. It simply measures sleep by comparing emitted infrared sequences and reflected sentences. The methodology is far more comfortable for users and prevents the influence devices are known to have on sleep tracking results in general.
Another area of innovation that Google was part of in 2017 was consumer tech design. It patented a notebook computer design that allows two foldable parts. Most hybrid PCs in the market today have just one detachable keyboard. But Google’s design ensures two parts. The foldable bottom part can either be used to cover the keyboard or as a kickstand. Other Google patents for 2017 have included incremental advancements like autonomous vehicle tail lamp, autonomous vehicle seat, bookmarking prospective media content online, and several others.
Clearly, 2017 has been an interesting year for the top five global patent holders. Other innovators like Facebook and Amazon are fast catching up though, with Amazon recording a 17 percent increase in granted patents between 2016 and 2017, including automated on-demand clothing factory and warehouse shooting drones for delivery. Facebook too recorded a 28 percent jump in the number of patents filed between 2016 and 2017. Clearly, the race to capture intellectual property is on. Who do you think will come out ahead? Let us know in the comments!