Patenting Nanotechnologies - What is Class 977 and How Does It Affect Nanotechnology Development?

Topics Covered

What is Class 977 and What Criteria Does It Cover?

What Happens to Nanotechnology Patents Issued Before Class 977 Became Law?

Overview of How Class 977 Has Affected Nanotechnology Patenting in the USA

A Detailed Breakdown of Class 977 and Nanotechnology Patenting

A Look at Class 977 in Year 2003

A List of the Top Patent Assignees Under US PTO’s Class 977

Some Selected Nanotechnology Patents from Class 977

What is Class 977 and What Criteria Does It Cover?

In October 2004, the US PTO announced it had created a new classification for nanotechnology patents - Class 977 - which would serve as a cross-reference to help examiners, among others, search prior art. Before Class 977 existed, examiners relied on keyword searches to find relevant information and related patents. As defined by the US PTO, nanotechnology patents in Class 977 must meet the following criteria:

•        Relate to research and technology development in the length scale of approximately 1-100 nm in at least one dimension.

•        Provide a fundamental understanding of phenomena and materials at the nanoscale and create and use structures, devices, and systems that have size-dependent novel properties and functions. 

What Happens to Nanotechnology Patents Issued Before Class 977 Became Law?

The US PTO is now reviewing patents issued before the classification was created and re-classifying those that meet the 977 criteria. According to Bruce Kisliuk, a patent examiner group director, the Patent Office hopes to be caught up reviewing already-issued patents within a year. Until the review is complete, the PTO is referring to Class 977 as a “digest.” Eventually, Class 977 will be broken down further into sub-classes.

Overview of How Class 977 Has Affected Nanotechnology Patenting in the USA

As of May 25, 2005, Class 977 included 726 patents issued by the US PTO, dating from May 24, 2005 back to 1980. In its incomplete state, Class 977 should be seen as a sample rather than a comprehensive picture of nano-patenting in the US. (At present, Class 977 contains only six nano-patents dating from the second half of 2004, for example.) Even though the classification is incomplete, the sample is worth looking at because it offers an advantage over more random patent searches (e.g. searching for keywords such as “nano” or “quantum”): we can be reasonably confident that the patents in Class 977 are bona fide nano-patents because they have been reviewed and each was determined to meet the classification criteria - relating to the nanometer scale (1-100 nm) in at least one dimension and exploiting size-dependent properties.  

A Detailed Breakdown of Class 977 and Nanotechnology Patenting

• The USPTO has issued nano-patents in the fields of electronics (including cameras, computers and other devices), instruments and tools (including scanning probe microscopes and sensors), pharmaceuticals (including drug delivery), food, agrochemicals, devices, materials (including fullerenes, nanotubes and quantum dots) and processes for creating and engineering nano-sized particles.

• More than 290 different primary patent examiners were assigned to evaluate these Class 977 patents. The extraordinarily large number of examiners raises suspicions that over-lapping and conflicting patents were granted by different examiners at about the same time; it also illustrates the multi-disciplinary and cross-sectoral nature of nano-scale science.

A Look at Class 977 in Year 2003

Out of the 235 Class 977 patents issued in 2003 (the most complete year):

• 112 (48%) are assigned to US-based companies.

• 29 (over 12%) are assigned to US universities.

• 70 (30%) are assigned to companies based outside the US (of these, 26 are assigned to companies based in Japan, 10 in Germany, 9 in Australia - 8 of which are assigned to one company, Silverbrook Research. Companies from Canada, Venezuela, France, Korea, Belgium, Denmark, Italy, Ireland, Netherlands, Taiwan and Antilles make up the other non-US assignees.)

• 15 (6.5%) are assigned to non-US government entities or national research agencies.

• The US government has rights to 31 patents (either because it provided funding for research or through outright ownership), which represents 22% of the patents assigned to US entities.  

A List of the Top Patent Assignees Under the US PTO’s Class 977

Table 1. The top patent assignees in US PTO Class 977, Nano-patents, Class 977, as of May 25, 2005 (726 patents).

Company/Institution

Headquarters

Patents Issued

Canon Kabushiki Kaisha

Japan

49

IBM

USA

47

Silverbrook Research

Australia

28

The United States of America

USA

16

Hitachi

Japan

16

Seagate Technology

USA

16

Micron Technology

USA

14

Eastman Kodak Company

USA

13

Olympus Optical Co., Ltd

Japan

10

University of California

USA

9

Rohm and Haas Company

Germany

9

Polaroid Corporation

USA

9

Sony Corporation

Japan

8

Molecular Imaging Corporation

USA

8

Some Selected Nanotechnology Patents from Class 977

Class 977 patents issued by the USPTO range from mundane to alarming to other-worldly. One would expect only great things from the Delphi Oracle Corporation and it does not disappoint: Delphi owns patent 6,493,910, “a shoelace with enhanced knot retention and method of manufacture.” (It’s a nanopatent because the shoelace makes use of nano-scale fumed silica.) On the disturbing end of the spectrum, the US government won patent 5,805,657 back in 1998 for “nuclear fuel elements made from nanophase materials,” which makes one wonder in the event of infringement - will there be anyone around to sue? Zyvex Corporation owns patent 6,510,359, a “method and system for self-replicating manufacturing stations.” In case anyone devises one of these in the next 20 years, it looks like Zyvex will own it. They claim a “non-biological self replicating manufacturing system” comprising:

•        A translating machine capable of translating at least a first surface in relation to at least a second surface, wherein said at least a first surface comprises at least one assembly station thereon and wherein said at least a second surface comprises parts arranged thereon for use in constructing at least one other assembly station; and

•        A control system for controlling the operation of said translating machine and for controlling said at least one assembly station to cause said at least one assembly station to construct at least one other assembly station from said parts on said second surface.  

Note: A complete set of references can be found by referring to the original document.

Source: ETC Group report entitled ‘Nanotech’s “Second Nature” Patents: Implications for the Global South’, April/May 2005.

For more information on this source please visit the ETC Group.

Date Added: Aug 29, 2005 | Updated: Jun 11, 2013
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