2020 Highlights from the Patent Landscape: Granted Patents

2020 Highlights from the Patent Landscape: Granted Patents

2020 was an unprecedented year, with the coronavirus pandemic taking a toll both socially and economically. However, despite the economic climate, patents maintained their slow climb back to being valuable assets, and patent filings and patent grants even showed signs of growth from a few years ago.

While there was a 1% drop in issued patents in the U.S. from 2019 to 2020, there was a 5% increase in patent applications, suggesting that intellectual property remains a desirable commodity. Additionally, despite a 1% drop year-over-year in granted patents the previous year, 2020 still saw a 13% increase in granted patents since 2018, further evidence of continued recovery of the patent market.


Scope of Granted Technology Patents in 2020

In particular, a large number of patents granted in 2020 were technology patents, (which are primarily defined as Information and Communications Technology patents), as the needs of different industries and their consumers continue to fluctuate amidst changing environments. Most of the technology patents issued in 2020 cover growing tech areas like digital data processing, telecommunications, artificial intelligence, automation, and medical technology.

Of the 352,013 newly granted patents in 2020, the companies with the most patents granted were the same primary tech companies seen at or near the top of this same list in previous years, including IBM, Samsung, Canon, and Microsoft. Other familiar names like Intel, Apple, Qualcomm, and Amazon remained in the top 15, while a few companies continued on a subtly descending trend, primarily Google, who went from 6th in 2018, to 15th in 2019, and down again to 17th in 2020 completely out of the Top 15. The following table from Statista provides a complete list of the top 15 companies.


Top 15 Companies with the Most Patents Granted in 2020


While many of the names in the Top 15 are familiar companies to this list, the scope of technologies covered in the patents themselves varies widely. Data Processing and Telecommunications patent grants, the top two tech areas in 2020, made up nearly 280,000 patent grants (80% of all patents granted last year). The range of markets covered in these two technology areas alone, however, broadens every year as 5G communication protocols, chipsets, and automation technologies continue to move into countless industries including homes, city planning, logistics, warehousing, transportation, and automotive, to name a few.

The following chart provides a detailed look from IFI Claims on the top technologies granted in 2020.


Top 20 CPC Classifications of Patents Granted in 2020 (by technology space)


One notable increase not immediately apparent from these charts is the increase in high tech patenting from automotive companies. While the number of granted patents varies each year for motor companies such as Toyota, Ford, Hyundai, and GM, many have seen an increase in the number of granted patents, very likely a reflection of the commitment to autonomous driving and smart car technology advancements.


A Closer Look at the Top Two Companies: IBM and Samsung


IBM was granted the most patents in 2020, marking their 28th year in a row of being the top recipient. It has clearly been a strategic mission for IBM to focus on patents as a revenue source the last three decades, but 28 straight years of the most patents granted is an admittedly incredible feat.

Despite being granted the most patents yet again, and despite having 30% more patents granted than number two company on the list (Samsung), IBM’s granted patents only makes up 2.5% of all patents granted in 2020. While there is a clear narrative of large corporations dominating patent grants, there remains incredible diversity of new companies receiving patent grants.

Of the 9,130 new IBM patents in 2020, around 2,300 are focused on artificial intelligence, 3,000 are directed to cloud and hybrid cloud technologies, and more than 1,400 cover data security and encryption.


Approx. Technology Breakdown of IBM’s 2020 Granted Patents


About of quarter of IBM’s granted patents cover a wider range of technologies, including a fair portion of medical and biotechnology patents that live under their Open COVID Pledge, providing free access to any patents or applications which may assist those diagnosing, preventing, or treating coronaviruses. IBM not only pledged but was actually a founding partner of the Open COVID Pledge in April of 2020. Of the top 15 companies with granted patents in 2020, Microsoft, Intel, and Amazon were also founding adopters of the Pledge. Extending to the top 50 companies, HP (44th with 807 granted patents) was an additional founder, and AT&T (26th with 1,238), Mitsubishi Electric (28th with 1,204), and Fujitsu (42nd with 917) also committed to the pledge. (The full list of companies who committed can be found here.)



While IBM continued to hold their longstanding place as top recipient of granted patents, Samsung was second highest for the 14th year in a row with 6,415 newly granted patents in 2020. Though close to 3,000 fewer patents granted than IBM, Samsung’s total is still twice as many patents as Canon, (who had the 3rdmost with 3,225 newly granted patents).

Samsung’s primary patented technologies focused mainly on their core business—smart home and IoT technologies—and included a large emphasis on 5G and telecommunication patents as part of expanding those core technologies. In fact, Samsung was not only granted the highest number of overall patents related to 5G in 2020, but a study commissioned specifically on the recent spike in Self-Declared Standard Essential Patents (SD-SEPs) found that Samsung currently claims to hold the highest number of enforceable 5G SEPs.


Granted, Filed, and Declared 5G Patents in 2020


5G, SEPs, and Potential Litigation

Samsung’s possession of 5G SD-SEPs is especially significant when considering the possible effects of so many companies simultaneously attempting to patent 5G standards. To put this in perspective, by September of 2020 there were over 30,000 active 5G SD-SEP grants, and over 60,000 active 5G SD-SEP applications awaiting review globally. This will not affect the release and use of the technology itself, but it has opened the door for another round of potentially endless licensing battles regarding 5G SEPs similar to the 4G battles waged over the last decade.

With literally thousands of simultaneous applications and grants regarding implementing 5G technology, some form of litigation appears imminent. Samsung, as well as other top 5G SD-SEP holders like LG, Huawei, and Nokia, seem to be positioning themselves as 5G leaders with their self-declared essential patents.


Other Trends of Interest in 2020 Granted Patents

Another area of technology which received a noticeable number of patents granted in 2020 was technology related to virtual meetings and hangouts, (an understandable swell, given that consumers on a global scale have been almost exclusively relying on this tech over the last year due to the pandemic). Many of the granted patents focus on specific aspects of virtual interaction, such as voice recognition, collaboration software, and face and gesture recognition. (for example, a virtual “joystick” patent that recognizes thumb and finger “micro-gestures” for simpler control in an AR or VR environment).

Virtual Meeting technology is often applicable to virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) applications as well, which also made up a significant portion of the issued technology patents of 2020. Microsoft, who had the 4th most granted patents in 2020 with just under 3,000 in total, had the most granted patents related to VR/AR, receiving 31 more grants than Magic Leap and 67 more than Google.

Top 6 Companies with Granted VR/AR Patents in 2020


When considering the ways in which our social and professional worlds have changed, it should not be surprising that the technological underbelly of the products and services we rely on, and therefore the relevant patent markets, has also been carefully adapting to remain relevant and advantageous.

A few other trends of interest:

– The top overall category of technology patents in 2020 was digital data processing, with the largest subset of these focusing primarily on utilizing artificial intelligence and machine learning to process data. Defined by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) as “computer systems based on biological models,” inventions related specifically to processing data by imitating neural networks and other brain functions were the most sought-after patents of last year. IBM alone received 2,789 in 2020.

– Surprisingly, electronic smoking technology, primarily innovations related to vaping, was the second fastest-growing patented tech in 2020. In fact, it has been one of the overall fastest growing areas for patent applications since 2013, with a CAGR of 45% between 2013-2017, and an expected continued growth of over 20%, reaching an estimated $61.4 billion market by 2025, (according to data from IFI Claims).

– The third fastest-growing trend of patented technology in 2020 covered an agricultural trend under the “angiosperms – new flowering plants” category, as defined by USPTO class codes. This is likely due to the growth of the cannabis industry, but may also reflect the beginning of increased nationwide interest in plant-based diets.

– Unsurprisingly, other upcoming types of technology which have gained and held public interest over the last few years also maintained importance in the 2020 patent landscape, such as those regarding quantum computing or autonomous driving. In fact, CB Insights cites over 40 companies already developing self-driving technologies in 2020, primarily semi-autonomous features such as brake assistance, lane switching, obstacle detection, and platooning, for overall safer driving.


As businesses continue to grow and technology expands, patents once again hold an increasingly important role as significant company assets. The key to any successful business is paying attention to the needs and desires of the consumers, and from the expansion of 5G, to new agricultural technology, we see this clearly reflected in the content of the patents applied for and granted in 2020.

The consistent, overall growth of patents,  even despite a pandemic, speaks to the importance of intellectual property as serious assets. Patents not only allow the production of new and innovative products and services, but they also provide a platform for infringement and licensing situations, which can ultimately increase a company’s strength and profit. Based on the technological patent trends of 2020, the primary players, and the projected responses (potential 5G SD-SEP licensing battles, for example), we can expect the patent landscape of 2021 to grow even richer, brimming both with expansion and adaptation to whatever the world brings over the next twelve months.

The core team of patent consultants at Vitek IP, LLC have analyzed over 20,000 patents, while managing hundreds of buy-side and sell-side transactions for some of the world’s largest companies. Vitek’s founders have over five decades of experience in IP and tech, and have developed sophisticated patent sales and patent acquisitions strategies for some of the world’s largest companies. Vitek’s patent consultancy, brokerage group, and research organization provide clients exceptional guidance navigating the patent landscape. For more information, visit www.vitek-ip.com.