January 27, 2013 4:53 pm

Computing patents hit new peak

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A person watches the Olympics on his mobile phone©Bloomberg

The number of patent applications for computing products hit a fresh high in 2012 as technology companies sought to arm themselves for the often fraught battle over intellectual property in the sector.

In total, more than 14,000 patent applications were made using the international Patent Co-Operation Treaty in 2012 – up almost a fifth compared with 2011.

The number of patent applications by technology companies such as Microsoft and Google has increased dramatically in recent years, with companies using intellectual property as ammunition in the so-called patent wars.

In 1993 about 700 patent applications via PCT were made. By 2001, the figure was almost 10,000, according to Sweet & Maxwell, a legal information provider.

Developments in smartphone and tablet technology have created a “wild west-style land grab” for patents, according to Gwilym Roberts, partner at the law firm Kilburn & Strode.

“New advancements are being made on a regular basis, and each one opens up whole new areas of intellectual property to be exploited,” said Mr Roberts. “Companies that get first-mover advantage in patents for these new areas can put themselves in a position of power, long before these products are even sold.”

According to Otis Littlefield, partner at law firm Morrison & Foerster, the growth in patent applications in recent years has also been driven by the rise of Asian technology companies.

“You have a number of economies switching from being followers to innovators,” said Mr Littlefield. “They now appreciate that intellectual property is of value. Chinese companies are filing many more PCT applications because they’re now doing innovative work that is worth patenting.”

ZTE, the Chinese telecommunications group, applied for 366 computing patents in 2012 – second only to Microsoft, which applied for 492. The company behind the Windows operating system and the Office range of software has applied for more computing patents than any other technology company over the last decade. Hitachi, the Japanese electronics conglomerate, was third with 334.

The PCT lets companies simultaneously apply for patents in each of the 146 countries signed up for the treaty. The treaty gives companies a filing date in each state and allows them 18 months to decide whether to formally file patents at a national level.

Applications tend to follow broader macroeconomic trends, with applications ramping up in the noughties and falling sharply in 2007 and 2008 amid the financial crisis.

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