Washington’s technology giants were both among the top 10 recipients of U.S. patents in 2019, a record year for new intellectual property.
Microsoft ranked fourth with 3,083 patents granted and Amazon, with 2,434, was ninth, according to an analysis by IFI Claims Patent Services. Boeing was 22nd on the list, with 1,383.
Just behind Amazon was Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei, and Chinese companies as a group claimed 5% of U.S. patents issued last year, trailing South Korean and Japanese businesses among foreign patent awardees.
In all, 333,530 patents were granted in 2019, up 15% from a year earlier, IFI found.
“The trend is up and it pretty much follows the economy, so it’s no surprise that 2019 was a banner year,” said IFI senior analyst Larry Cady.
While Amazon often attracts attention for unusual patents related to its core business of online commerce and delivery — air bags for packages dropped by drone, wristbands tracking worker movements in warehouses, or methods for discretely returning unwanted gifts before they’re sent – the majority of its 2019 granted patents fell into a few broad technology categories. Most of its 2019 patents were for data processing and transmission of digital information, likely relating to its huge, highly profitable cloud computing business, Cady said.
“Amazon has a similar profile to IBM, Microsoft, Google and Facebook,” he said. (IBM was again the top recipient of U.S. patents last year, followed by Samsung Electronics and Canon.)
Amazon also had a concentration of patents in speech recognition, a reflection of its Alexa voice computing technology and machine learning, though several of Amazon’s rivals were active in this area, too, Cady said.
The lag time between a patent application and its grant can be two years or more, so the patent categories granted in 2019 represent the outcome of research conducted in the mid- to late-2010s or earlier. And many patents may never wind up in a product on the market. At Amazon, patents don’t necessarily reflect current developments in its product and services, a spokesperson said.
But a robust and growing patent portfolio is table stakes for the world’s biggest technology companies, and their employees are often recognized and rewarded for inventions patented on behalf of their employers. Amazon has an internal office to streamline the process, helping even non-engineers claim ideas on the company’s behalf.
As recognition for filing for a patent, employees get clear, puzzle-shaped awards adorned with CEO Jeff Bezos’ signature. A blue puzzle piece recognizes granted patents.
Amazon ranked 52nd on a separate IFI tabulation of active patent holders — counting the patent families owned by a company and its subsidiaries, which may include multiple individual patents related to a given technology. Microsoft is fifth on that list.
An Amazon spokesperson declined to provide specifics on the company’s patent portfolio.
IFI also tracked the fastest-growing areas of new patent activity from 2014 to 2019. This list includes genetically modified hybrid plants, gene editing technologies, cancer therapies, quantum computing and machine learning, 3-D printing, unmanned aerial vehicles, autonomous driving and piloting systems, medical image processing and golf equipment.