Patents on nanoscale materials, tools and processes are a fair measure of the tsunami-like strength of this latest industrial revolution. Estimates vary on the number of nanotech patents issued since the early 1990s, but all agree that both companies and public sector entities are “rushing to the patent office in record numbers to patent nanotechnology inventions.” (source: Mark A. Lemley, William H. Neukom Professor of Law, Stanford University, in a paper entitled “Patenting Nanotechnology”).
Classification 977 - the US PTO’s Classification for Nanotechnology Patents
The lack of uniform definitions for nanotechnology means that identifying the number of nanotech-related patents granted over the past decade is a very imprecise science. When the US PTO announced it had created a new classification for nanotechnology patents in October 2004 it defined nanotechnology patents narrowly: Classification 977 includes only those patents 1) whose subject matter is in the scale of approximately 1-100 nanometers in at least one dimension; and 2) that involve materials, structures, devices or systems that have novel properties and functions because of their nanoscale size.
Figures Suggest that Demand for Registering Nanotechnology Patents is Already Massive - and Growing
Nanotech patent searches often use broad search terms (for example, the prefix “nano”), which can result in exaggerated counts. There is wide consensus, however, that major patent offices worldwide are granting nanotech patents at an extraordinary pace. The chart below (figure 1) illustrates the overall trend, which is similar at the World Intellectual Property Organization’s Patent Cooperation Treaty and at the US PTO. In response to the demand for nanotech patents, more than a dozen major law firms in the US have recently established nanotech patent law specialties.
Figure 1. Patent trends for nanotechnology from 1999 to 2004 – US PTO stasistics in black, WIPO statistics in white.
Which Countries and Companies are Leading the Way in Nanotechnology Patenting?
Researchers from the University of Arizona and the US National Science Foundation examined nanoscale science and engineering patents at the US Patent & Trademark Office from 1976-2003. 12 They found that 8,630 nanotech-related patents were issued by the US PTO in 2003 alone, an increase of 50% over the previous three years. The top 5 countries represented were: US (5,228 patents), Japan (926), Germany (684), Canada (244) and France (183). The top 5 entities winning nanotech-related patents included four multinational electronic firms and one university: IBM (198 patents), Micron Technologies (129), Advanced Micro Devices (128), Intel (90) and University of California (89).
What Lux Research Say About Nanotechnology Patenting
A new report by Lux Research, Inc. identifies far fewer nanotech patents granted by the US PTO. In April 2005, Lux announced that it had identified 3,818 nanotech-related patents issued between 1985-March 2005, with an additional 1,777 patent applications.