A government program that can expedite patents for businesses willing to pay an extra fee is benefiting the world’s largest technology companies, including Google, which has amassed far more expedited patents than any other company since the program began three years ago.
Google has obtained 875 fast-track patents, about 14 percent of the 6,187 expedited patents that have been issued by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office since the program began in 2011, according to data provided by the agency.
The vast majority — more than 97 percent — of companies, universities, inventors and other parties that have obtained expedited patents have received 10 or fewer of them.
Google declined to comment on or confirm how much the company paid to pursue those patents. But under the program’s fee structure, it would cost a large company such as Google $3.5 million to obtain 875 expedited patents.
The patents Google has obtained through the fast-track program touch on areas including smartwatch user-interface features (patent 8467270), printing in the cloud (patent 8189225), and estimating the availability of products by collecting data from retailers (patent 8335722).
Google is one of only two companies that have been issued expedited patents in the triple digits. The other is Chinese telecom giant Huawei Technologies, with 147 patents. Other technology companies capitalizing on the fast-track system include LG Electronics, with 72 patents; Silicon Valley Bank, which lends to emerging companies, with 66; LinkedIn, with 35; Limelight Networks, with 34; Insera Therapeutics and United Technologies, with 33 each; and Research In Motion, with 32.
The patent office declined to comment.
It is not unusual for tech companies to seek a large number of patents, because the technology changes so fast, said intellectual property lawyer Todd Dickinson, head of the patent office from 1999 to 2001 and now a consultant. And it is not surprising that many of the commercial tech sector’s leading players are the ones seeking the most expedited patents.
“Given the rapid development and heavy competition of smartphones, getting those [patents] issued as soon as possible, to get protection as soon as possible, sounds like a relatively natural strategy,” Dickinson said. “The large companies, particularly in those industries, have the resources to make that kind of investment.”
The fast-track program, called Track One, was created in 2011 by the America Invents Act and was intended to alleviate a backlog of patent applications, a long-standing problem that can make it hard for businesses to quickly enforce their legal rights against infringers. The program can reduce the amount of time it takes to get a patent issued from several years to a matter of months.
The system allows a company to pay an additional fee on top of the base fee of $1,600, in the hopes of getting a patent approved faster than if it submitted a standard application. The extra fee follows a sliding scale: $4,000 for large companies, $2,000 for smaller companies and $1,000 for individual inventors, known as “micro-entities.”
Although the patent office created the scale so that individual inventors and start-ups would have the same opportunity as large companies, “small inventors who can’t afford even $1,000 are at a disadvantage,” Dickinson said.
Across the board, the patent office is granting more patents than it used to, clearing a record 300,000 patents in 2013, compared with about 200,000 four years earlier. It is also granting more fast-track patents than it used to: 8,085 in 2014, up from 827 in 2011.
Although it is not unusual for tech companies to amass patents more quickly as they mature, Google is setting a pace that stands out. In 2008, Google was ranked 290 out of the top 300 U.S. patent holders, with just 58 patents. By 2013, the company had rocketed to 10th place, with 2,190 patents, up 90 percent from the year before, according to the Intellectual Property Owners Association, a trade group for owners of patents, trademarks, copyrights and trade secrets.
The patent portfolios of IBM and Apple followed similar trajectories as the companies matured, Dickinson said.
“They start off thinking patents are an impediment. It’s like teenagers thinking: ‘This is what old folks do. I’m young and free and don’t want to be encumbered,’ ” Dickinson said. “But eventually they grow up to realize there’s value in it. They invest a huge amount in R&D, and here’s another way to get value, by licensing it. And they have shareholder expectations [that] they’re going to protect it and don’t want to get ripped off by someone else.”
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