Scanning Probe Microscopes (SPMs) and Atomic Force Microscopes (AFMs) - Who Holds All the Patents?

Topics Covered

Background

Veeco Holds Almost 50% of All the Patents Issued for AFMs and SPMs

How Veeco Has Come to Dominate the Metrology Sector

Veeco’s Patent Dispute with Asylum Research

Patenting and Intellectual Property Matters for AFMs and SPMs - a Summary of the Current Situation

Background

The SPM patent landscape is densely populated because the tool is still evolving and inventors tend to seek intellectual property protection on every modification and variation. Since IBM’s pioneering patent in 1982, the US PTO has issued 735 patents that refer to AFMs/SPMs in their abstracts. 214 additional patent applications referring to AFMs are pending. As the following table makes clear, AFM patent activity is still robust, doubling over the last six years. 

Table 1. AFM/SPM patents - top 10 patent assignees.

Institution

Number of patents

%

Veeco*

82

11%

IBM

61

8%

Olympus Optical Co.

34

5%

Seiko Instuments

32

4%

University of California

26

3%

Hitachi

25

3%

Molecular Imaging

24

3%

Canon Kabushiki Kaisha

21

3%

Stanford University

19

3%

Advanced Micro Devices

17

2%

Jeol Ltd.

17

2%

* Includes patents assigned to Digital Instruments, Wyko, Topometrix, Park Scientific and ThermoMicroscopes - all acquired by Veeco.

Veeco Holds Almost 50% of All the Patents Issued for AFMs and SPMs

The top 10 patent assignees account for 47% of the total AFM/SPM patents issued at US PTO from 1999-2004. Veeco considers itself a world leader in nano-scale metrology equipment. Although the company’s total sales were only $390 million in 2004, Veeco is the world’s leading seller of atomic force microscopes, and dominates the global AFM market. According to Lux Research, Veeco sells between 80 and 100 AFMs/SPMs to the scientific research community every quarter. Veeco has sold over 7,000 research AFMs in addition to more than 120 AFMs used in semiconductor and data storage factories.

How Veeco Has Come to Dominate the Metrology Sector

Veeco’s business strategy has been to develop microscopy tools internally and to acquire companies that are already in the AFM business. Veeco’s acquisition of the Wyko Corporation in 1997 gained Veeco a position in the metrology business; Veeco’s acquisition of Digital Instruments the following year brought Veeco into the world of Scanning Probe Microscopes. Since 1998, Veeco has continued acquiring metrology companies, including Topometrix, Park Scientific and ThermoMicroscopes as well as technology from IBM. Veeco now holds approximately 150 patents worldwide related to AFMs/SPMs.

Veeco’s Patent Dispute with Asylum Research

Veeco is currently involved in a patent dispute with Asylum Research - an AFM manufacturer founded by former Digital Instruments employees. Veeco sued Asylum for patent infringement in 2003; in early 2004, Asylum countersued Veeco for failing to pay royalties on a technology developed by Asylum researchers. Dr. Jason Cleveland, Asylum Research’s Chairman, stated, “We believe the Veeco lawsuit is an attempt to stop competition and deprive the AFM market of leading edge products.” The cases have not been decided.

Figure 1. Chart showing US PTO patents or patent applications referring to AFMs in the patent abstract.

Patenting and Intellectual Property Matters for AFMs and SPMs - a Summary of the Current Situation

•        Veeco and IBM clearly dominate in the area of IP related to AFMs/SPMs. Through strategic acquisitions of companies and patents, Veeco is the industry leader and holds approximately 150 patents worldwide related to AFMs/SPMs.

•        AFM/SPM technologies are not static - they are constantly being refined and advanced. Veeco is a relatively small company - and could be acquired by a larger competitor.

•        At this early stage, the concentration in ownership of one of nanotech’s key enabling tool should be closely monitored, and poses special concerns for researchers in the global South. 

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.

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