After 200 years, patent volume still grows, along with strategy needs

In June of this year, the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) issued its ten millionth patent for an invention that improves laser detection and ranging (LADAR) and may be used in autonomous vehicles, for space exploration, and in other high-tech industries. That's impressive work for a department that began more than 200 years ago with one patent, signed by George Washington, for "making pot ash and pearl ash."

For the past 30 years, as technology and industry have advanced, the number of United States patent applications have increased substantially. Patents are, and always have been, a foundation of the global corporate landscape and serve as a bellwether for innovation and trajectory. Patents can be leveraged for revenue growth, defending market position, putting competitors on the defensive, and other tasks essential to implementing a corporate vision. And, as countless in-house counsels will attest, patent strategy closely mirrors corporate priorities across many industries. Recent data may give insight into corporate patent filing strategies.

Current Trends

Patent filings have continued robustly, though the rate of growth has fluctuated a bit in the last several years. This isn't unprecedented, and recent decades have seen a few similar blips amid an overall trend of increasing patent volume.

One possible explanation involves more targeted filing strategies on the part of corporations. As businesses manage increasingly large patent portfolios, they may be choosing to focus on their core innovations and be shifting their resources accordingly. Strong patent defense remains as important as ever, but management may be acknowledging the reality that defending an infinite number of patents isn't tenable, or even desirable. You want to focus on your strongest inventions and intellectual property, and defend them even more fiercely.

Of course, it may be something else entirely. It's too soon to say with certainty what the data on patent volume suggests. Perhaps it's just noise in the ongoing trend of patent volume increase, or perhaps something is truly changing. Whatever the case, corporations are still contending with larger patent portfolios than ever before and must choose their battles. Management must carefully allocate resources to ensure that core competencies have adequate defense, while still protecting the larger array of secondary patents.

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