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US patents hit record 333,530 granted in 2019; IBM, Samsung (not the FAANGs) lead the pack

Ingrid Lunden
Gavel next to gears and mechanical diagram for patent application. Concept for patent attorney.
Gavel next to gears and mechanical diagram for patent application. Concept for patent attorney.

We may have moved on from a nearly-daily cycle of news involving tech giants sparring in courts over intellectual property infringement, but patents continue to be a major cornerstone of how companies and people measure their progress and create moats around the work that they have done in hopes of building that into profitable enterprises in the future. IFI Claims, a company that tracks patent activity in the US, released its annual tally of IP work today underscoring that theme: it noted that 2019 saw a new high-watermark of 333,530 patents granted by the US Patent and Trademark Office.

The figures are notable for a few reasons. One is that this is the most patents ever granted in a single year; and the second that this represents a 15% jump on a year before. The high overall number speaks to the enduring interest in safeguarding IP, while the 15% jump has to do with the fact that patent numbers actually dipped last year (down 3.5%) while the number that were filed and still in application form (not granted) was bigger than ever. If we can draw something from that, it might be that filers and the USPTO were both taking a little more time to file and process, not a reduction in the use of patents altogether.

But patents do not tell the whole story in another very important regard.

Namely, the world's most valuable, and most high profile tech companies are not always the ones that rank the highest in patents filed.

Consider the so-called FAANG group, Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix and Google: Facebook is at number-36 (one of the fastest movers but still not top 10) with 989 patents; Apple is at number-seven with 2,490 patents; Amazon is at number-nine with 2,427 patents; Netflix doesn't make the top 50 at all; and the Android, search and advertising behemoth Google is merely at slot 15 with 2,102 patents (and no special mention for growth).

Indeed, the fact that one of the oldest tech companies, IBM, is also the biggest patent filer almost seems ironic in that regard.

As with previous years -- the last 27, to be exact -- IBM has continued to hold on to the top spot for patents granted, with 9,262 in total for the year. Samsung Electronics, at 6,469, is a distant second.

These numbers, again, don't tell the whole story: IFI Claims notes that Samsung ranks number-one when you consider all active patent "families", which might get filed across a number of divisions (for example a Samsung Electronics subsidiary filing separately) and count the overall number of patents to date (versus those filed this year). In this regard, Samsung stands at 76,638, with IBM the distant number-two at 37,304 patent families.

Part of this can be explained when you consider their businesses: Samsung makes a huge range of consumer and enterprise products. IBM, on the other hand, essentially moved out of the consumer electronics market years ago and these days mostly focuses on enterprise and B2B and far less hardware. That means a much smaller priority placed on that kind of R&D, and subsequent range of families.

Two other areas that are worth tracking are biggest movers and technology trends.

In the first of these, it's very interesting to see a car company rising to the top. Kia jumped 58 places and is now at number-41 (921 patents) -- notable when you think about how cars are the next "hardware" and that we are entering a pretty exciting phase of connected vehicles, self-driving and alternative energy to propel them.

Others rounding out fastest-growing were Hewlett Packard Enterprise, up 28 places to number-48 (794 patents); Facebook, up 22 places to number-36 (989 patents); Micron Technology, up nine places to number-25 (1,268), Huawei, up six places to number-10 (2,418), BOE Technology, up four places to number-13 (2,177), and Microsoft, up three places to number-4 (3,081 patents).

In terms of technology trends, IFI looks over a period of five years, where there is now a strong current of medical and biotechnology innovation running through the list right now, with hybrid plant creation topping the list of trending technology, followed by CRISPR gene-editing technology, and then medicinal preparations (led by cancer therapies). "Tech" in the computer processor sense only starts at number-four with dashboards and other car-related tech; with quantum computing, 3-D printing and flying vehicle tech all also featuring.

Indeed, if you have wondered if we are in a fallow period of innovation in mobile, internet and straight computer technology... look no further than this list to prove out that thought.

Ten Fast Growing Technologies from IFIClaims

Unsurprisingly, US companies account for 49% of U.S. patents granted in 2019 up from 46 percent a year before. Japan accounts for 16% to be the second-largest, with South Korea at 7% (Samsung carrying a big part of that, I'm guessing), and China passing Germany to be at number-four with 5%.

  1. International Business Machines Corp 9262

  2. Samsung Electronics Co Ltd 6469

  3. Canon Inc 3548

  4. Microsoft Technology Licensing LLC 3081

  5. Intel Corp 3020

  6. LG Electronics Inc 2805

  7. Apple Inc 2490

  8. Ford Global Technologies LLC 2468

  9. Amazon Technologies Inc 2427

  10. Huawei Technologies Co Ltd 2418

  11. Qualcomm Inc 2348

  12. Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co TSMC Ltd 2331

  13. BOE Technology Group Co Ltd 2177

  14. Sony Corp 2142

  15. Google LLC 2102

  16. Toyota Motor Corp 2034

  17. Samsung Display Co Ltd 1946

  18. General Electric Co 1818

  19. Telefonaktiebolaget LM Ericsson AB 1607

  20. Hyundai Motor Co 1504

  21. Panasonic Intellectual Property Management Co Ltd 1387

  22. Boeing Co 1383

  23. Seiko Epson Corp 1345

  24. GM Global Technology Operations LLC 1285

  25. Micron Technology Inc 1268

  26. United Technologies Corp 1252

  27. Mitsubishi Electric Corp 1244

  28. Toshiba Corp 1170

  29. AT&T Intellectual Property I LP 1158

  30. Robert Bosch GmbH 1107

  31. Honda Motor Co Ltd 1080

  32. Denso Corp 1052

  33. Cisco Technology Inc 1050

  34. Halliburton Energy Services Inc 1020

  35. Fujitsu Ltd 1008

  36. Facebook Inc 989

  37. Ricoh Co Ltd 980

  38. Koninklijke Philips NV 973

  39. EMC IP Holding Co LLC 926

  40. NEC Corp 923

  41. Kia Motors Corp 921

  42. Texas Instruments Inc 894

  43. LG Display Co Ltd 865

  44. Oracle International Corp 847

  45. Murata Manufacturing Co Ltd 842

  46. Sharp Corp 819

  47. SK Hynix Inc 798

  48. Hewlett Packard Enterprise Development LP 794

  49. Fujifilm Corp 791

  50. LG Chem Ltd 791