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15 January 2016

2015 “Most patent disputes in history”, IBM most patents again

A wave of patent reports has been doing the rounds at the start of this year, as legal experts from a range of industries attempt to summarize the sometimes complex field – from the myriad of patent disputes to the countless patents granted or declined.

A patent dispute report from UnifiedPatents, which observes filings with both the US Patent and Trademark Office and disputes in federal district courts, found that overall patent disputes totaled 5,500 in 2015 – an increase of 13% compared to the previous year, and the highest ever recorded.

By industry, UnifiedPatents reported that the majority of patent litigation in 2015 involved high-tech patents (patents covering technologies related to computing or consumer electronics) that were asserted against high-tech and non-tech companies. Of all the high-tech litigation cases of 2015, a mammoth 87.6% involved non-practicing entities (NPEs), otherwise known as patent trolls.

The natural home of most US patent disputes, the Eastern District of Texas, was the number one patent dispute venue of last year, with 44% of all patent litigation being filed there – most of which were assigned to a single judge.

According to a separate report from IFI Claims Patent Services, the number of patents granted in the US declined for the first time since 2007. The report finds there were 298,407 utility patents granted in 2015, down 1% from the previous year. For the 23rd consecutive year, IBM was the company to receive the most patents last year, at 7,355. Samsung Electronics came in second place with 5,072 patents, followed by Canon with 4,134 patents. You will note that the most litigious company Apple, rarely files patents by comparison.

What’s interesting about the report from IFI is that this year, Microsoft dropped from 5th to 10th in the rankings – slipping from 2,829 patents received in 2014, to 1,956 in 2015. Other big players such as Qualcomm moved up to 4th place with 2,900 patents received last year, and Google climbed three places to 5th with 2,835.

“During IBM’s 23 years atop the patent list, the company’s inventors have received more than 88,000 US patents. IBM’s investments in R&D continue to shape the future of computing through cognitive computing and the cloud platform that will help our clients drive transformation across multiple industries,” said Ginni Rometty, IBM’s Chairman, President and CEO.

IFI says this shift in rankings is due to the changes in where patents are being parked, as Microsoft’s granted patents were divided between Microsoft Technology Licensing and Microsoft Corp. IFI says this is becoming the norm nowadays, as AT&T, Samsung, HP, and Panasonic all spread their patent portfolios across their various arms.

Faultline reported on a range of patent litigation disputes during 2015, in a year that saw some significant commotion, but also a few surprises as sworn enemies seemed to set their differences aside, for now.

Most notably, in December 2015, the most epic patents battle in history looked to be finally coming to a close, as Samsung agreed to pay Apple more than $548 million in damages for design and utility patent infringements. However, there are still a few smaller disputes to settle as Samsung seeks the right to be reimbursed if future judgements change the award. Apple replied by saying it will not return any of the money, and has appealed the decision to set aside its pinch-to-zoom patent, which could affect the sum owed.

In November, we reported on Kudelski subsidiaries OpenTV and Nagra suing Verizon and its recently acquired subsidiary AOL, in a suit claiming seven patent infringements – filed in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Texas. Since then, there have been no updates on the case.

Last year also saw Microsoft shut down all of its patent legal actions – most of which were offensive, rather than defensive – against Google. This continues a trend of Microsoft working alongside Google to strike at Apple and other interests.

One of the last cases of 2015 saw Qualcomm getting into trouble with the Taiwan Fair Trade Commission which asked for information from the company as part of an investigation into Qualcomm’s patent licensing agreements, following similar allegations made in Korea. The investigation is still in the early stages.

TiVo is one company which makes a significant chunk of its money by licensing its patents, and occasionally suing to get people to use them – it filed a patent infringement suit against Samsung in September. However, over the next couple of years, TiVo’s initial patents will begin expiring, and the company will be forced to find a way to plug the hole they leave in the balance sheet.

Also last year, CDN behemoth Akamai Technologies came out victorious following a unanimous US Court of Appeals decision that ruled Limelight Networks was liable for direct infringement of an Akamai patent. After this ruling, Faultline posed the question of whether you can really patent something as expansive and multifaceted as a CDN? – as we seem to be witnessing a shift away from the historic authority of patents, to an environment that isn’t particularly fond of software patents and their over-reaching claims.