What’s past is prologue.
Way Better Patents' Weekly Box Scores provide a snapshot of US patent grant activity, patent grants, reexamined and reissued patents, errata notices, and patent corrections each week along with a running total of activity so far each year. Today we take a retrospective look at US patenting activity in 2013.
Utility Patents, patents issued for the invention of a new and useful process, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter, or a new and useful improvement, account for about 90% of patents granted in the United States. A utility patent protects the way an article works or is used. Utility patents can have more than one claim and afford the inventor exclusive use of their invention for a period of 20 years measured from the US filing date if all of the maintenance fees are paid.
2013 saw an almost 10 percent (10%) increase in the number of utility patents issued compared with 2012. The chemical, electrical, and mechanical domains were all up 9–10% Y/Y (year-over-year). Design patents were up almost 7% Y/Y, while plant patent grants declined in 2013, showing a –1.5% Y/Y change.
The yearly volume of 277,852 utility patents translates to an average of 5,242 patents over the 53-Tuesday year. The lowest weekly output of 2,685 utility grants occurred on December 24, 2013 with the highest prodution of 5,847 grants on April 16, 2013.
Utility patents are broadly divided into three categories, Chemical, Electrical, and Mechanical.
Chemical utility patents cover Biotechnology and Organic Chemistry; Drugs, and Chemical and Materials Engineering. There were 53,711 new chemical domain patents, averaging 1,013 grants per week for the year, with the low (601 grants) and high outputs (1,224) occurring on December 24 and August 6, respectively.
Electrical utility patents cover almost everything electrical including the technology that powers the innovation economy. This includes multiplex communications, transistors, solid state diodes, telecommunications, data processing electrical computers and digital processing systems, database and file management or data structures, computer graphics processing and pulse and digital communications among other electrical inventions. we use every day in the innovation economy and everything that is converging with all of the inventions in other domains. These are the technologies primarily responsible for the informationization of innovation, the convergence of other inventions with all things digital. Electrical patents were the most prolific inventive area among the three types of utility patents accounting for 152,901 new grants in 2013, issued at an average rate of 2,885 per week, ranging from a weekly low of 1,419 on December 24, 2013 to 3,242 on December 31, 2013.
Business Methods Patents, one of the most contentious type of patents issued in the US, inventions that fall within the electrical domains, cover computer implemented inventions. Business Methods, and software patents more broadly, business methods patents comprise 18 percent (18%) of all electrical domain grants this year. 2013 saw 5,890 Business Methods (Class 705) patents issued, ranging from 71 grants on July 30, 2013 to 158 grants on December 31, 2013. The weekly average number of Business Methods patent grants was 1,011. Business Method patents can also be found in other US Patent Classes including reservations systems, televoting, telephonic communications, sales ordering, arithmetic processing and calculating, business devices, and more. Way Better Patents, using guidance provided by USPTO's Business Methods Partnership, refers to these inventions as Broad Business Methods. Broad Business Methods patents totaled 22,500 for the year, and issued at an average rate of 425 per week in 2013. They ranged between 212 on December 24,2013 to 529 on December 3, 2013.
Mechanical patents make up the second largest domain within the utility patents category, totaling 71,240 new grants last year. Mechanical domain patents cover a wide range of inventions including those in Transportation, Construction, Agriculture, Mechanical Engineering, Manufacturing, and Products. Medical devices also fall within the mechanical domain. Issued at an average of 1,344 per week, they ranged from 665 on December 24, 2013 to 1,688 on February 19, 2013.
Design Patents protect the appearance of an article and protect the way an article looks — its ornamental appearance including its shape/configuration or surface ornamentation. The term of a design patent is 14 years from the date of grant. Design patents have only one (1) claim. There are no maintenance fees for design patents.
Design patents were granted on average at a rate of 443 per week. They ranged between 350 on December 31, 2013 to 800 on March 19, 2013. This class of inventions issued at an almost constant weekly rate throughout the year that we surmise is linked to a contractual agreement between USPTO and one of the contractors that provide document support to the Patent Office. For 33 of the 53 weeks in 2013, there were 410 design patents issued. Design patents are an area to keep an eye on becoming more contentious as questions arise on the patentability of the rounded corners on a smartphone icon (Apple) or the wide band on the top of yoga pants (Lululemon Athletica Inc.), all covered by design patents.
Plant Patents are granted by the Government to an inventor who has invented or discovered and asexually reproduced a distinct and new variety of plant, other than a tuber propagated plant or a plant found in an uncultivated state. A plant patent is granted for 20 years from the date of filing. A plant patent protects the inventor’s right to exclude others from asexually reproducing, selling, or using the plant so reproduced. The smallest group of granted inventions, there were 847 new plant patents, averaging 16 per week, with a low of 4 on June 4, 2013 and a high of 30 on October 8, 2013.
Claims & Inventions
A smartphone might involve as many as 250,000 (largely questionable) patent claims, and our competitors want to impose a “tax” for these dubious patents ...
A well-known and broadly discussed “claims = inventions” quote is found in an August 2011 blog post from Google.
Way Better Patents uses claim count as a gauge of the scope of patent activity, an indicator of the number of new inventions in their various permutations for which an inventor has exclusive rights. If a patent has 20 claims, there are 20 different ways in which the invention in the patent might be built or used. This means that the next innovator up has to consider whether the products being envisioned are affected by any of the 20 claims individually. Way Better Patents views claim count as an important metric for assessing the scope and complexity of the patent landscape.
|Business Methods (Class 705)||5,890||123,610||20.9|
|Broad Business Methods||22,500||430,734||19.1|
|Total New Grants||302,167||4,625,933||15.3|
The counts of total inventions (claims) by domain tracks those of total grants (first figure above). Utility patents overall contained 4,601,618 claims in 2013, with the electrical domain contributing 58 percent of those claims, followed by mechanical patents claims (24%), and chemical domain claims (18%).
The proportions of independent vs. dependent claims show a high degree of constancy across the three main utility domains and business methods patents, a subset of Electrical patents.. Independent claims range between 13.8 - 16.3 percent across the utility, chemical, electrical, mechanical, business methods and their broader classes. They are 100 percent of design and plant patents, which are composed of a single claim. Dependent claims make up the remainder, ranging between 83.7 - 86.2 percent.
USPTO is a fee driven agency with a complex fee schedule. Patent application filing fees are based on number of independent claims, number of dependent claims, and total number of claims. The fee schedule has a compounding effect when patents have more than three independent claims and dependent claikms that push the patent above 20 claims. While this results in the norm being patents that hover around the 20 claim range, looking at the domains where inventors are willing to "invest" in additional claims provides insight into where innovation is heading. Here’s an extract from the fee schedule in effect on January 1, 2014:
|Description||Fee||Small Entity||Micro Entity|
|Independent claims in excess of three||$420||$210||$105|
|Claims in excess of 20||$80||$40||$20|
|Multiple dependent claim||$780||$390||$195|
USPTO defines a small entity as an independent inventor, a small business, or a nonprofit organization. Universities are non-profit organizations and are considered small entities by the USPTO. A micro entity is defined by either a limited income and limited experience with the patent application filings or employment by, or an assignment or obligation to assign to, an institution of higher education. Fees related to numbers of claims are assessed on a per-claim basis for claims exceeding the threshold number. As you can see, it is financially advantageous to applicants to have three or fewer independent claims, limited numbers of dependent claims, and twenty or fewer claims overall.
This financial burden is reflected in the statistics on numbers of claims. Numbers of claims are one indication of a patent’s complexity, but they also reflect the economic reality of USPTO’s fee schedule. In 2013, utility patents contained a total of 4,601,664 claims, for an average of 16.5 claims per patent. This is noteworthy, directly demonstrating the effect of USPTO’s fee schedule on claim numbers.
Electrical domain patents dominated US utility patent grants in 2013, comprising 55 percent. Mechanical patents, in distant second place, contributed 26 percent of all utility patents. Chemical patents made up the remaining 19 percent. Within the electrical domain, business methods-related patents comprised a respectable 19 percent.
Metrics of claim numbers show the effect of USPTO’s fee schedule for patent applications — price points related to numbers of independent, dependent, and total claims are clearly reflected in metrics of average numbers of claims per patent, by domain. It is interesting to note that business methods patents (USPC Class 705) have the highest average number of claims — 20.9 — with their related broad business methods patents close behind at 19.1. Further, this group of technologies had the highest average number of independent claims — 2.9 and 3 for Class 705 and broad business methods, respectively, slightly greater than the average for electrical patents as a whole (2.8). This pattern suggests that the portion of application filing fees based on claims numbers, and the resulting total application price, is of less importance to applicants in these categories than to applicants in other US patent domains.
Next we’ll review the top technologies patented in the US in 2013.