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McAndrews, Held & Malloy
Using the USPTO Class 977 - Nanotechnology and its sub-classes as a valid proxy or a window into the state of nanotechnology patenting is possible because of their broad scope and consistency. Moreover, since the USPTO provides a ready-to-use compilation of nanotechnology patents by virtue of its classification process, performing a broad and practical analysis of the state of nanotechnology patenting can be greatly simplified by using the information available from Class 977 and its sub-classes.
November 12th, 2011
Analyzing Nanotechnology Patenting Activity
Getting a broad and practical view of the state of nanotechnology patenting is generally a difficult task because of the wide range of technical fields involved. Any picture of nanotechnology patenting activity tends to be very dependent on the search strategy used by those performing the analysis. That is to be expected. A biochemist, for example, will likely use a set of terms in performing a landscape analysis that has a different scope than the scope used by someone with an interest in semiconductor devices. As a result, the outcome of a typical landscape analysis may often paint a view of nanotechnology patenting that is narrower than what is perhaps needed.
Grouping together as many nanotechnology-related patents as possible is a good place to start for carrying out an analysis intended to have a wide scope. One approach to produce a broad collection of patents may involve performing multiple searches with different scope and compiling the results. Not only is such undertaking not trivial, but the inconsistency described above remains as the number and scope of the searches used can greatly influence the final collection. Fortunately for those of us who want a broad view of the field, the work of grouping nanotechnology-related patent, and much more, is already being done by the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) through its classification system.
In August 2004, the USPTO created Class 977 in response to a need to gather all published U.S. patents and U.S. pre-grant publications related to nanotechnology into a single art collection (1). The USPTO originally assigned a single sub-class, Digest 1 (DIG.1), to Class 977. Subsequently, in November 2005, the USPTO issued Classification Order 1850 in which the single sub-class was replaced by sub-classes 700-963 (2). It is important to note that Class 977 and its sub-classes were not created to assign patent applications to particular technology centers or art units within the USPTO for examination purposes. Instead, they were intended to provide an additional collection of references that patent examiners could use to assist them in finding the most relevant prior art for evaluating novel aspects of nanotechnology-related patent applications.
As a single supplemental art collection, Class 977 not only spans a large number of technical fields but also provides consistency across those fields. It is because of these features that Class 977 can be used as a suitable proxy for nanotechnology patenting activity. For example, the art classified under Class 977 includes disclosures in the following areas: 1. nanostructures and chemical compositions of nanostructures; 2. devices that include at least one nanostructure; 3. mathematical algorithms specifically adapted to model configurations or properties of nanostructures; 4. methods or apparatuses for making, detecting, analyzing, or treating nanostructures; and 5. particular uses of nanostructures (3). Moreover, while Class 977 provides the appropriate scope for a broad-based analysis, the 264 sub-classes available under Class 977 also allow for sufficient granularity when a more narrow view is necessary.
Another feature of Class 977 and its sub-classes is that they provide consistency by uniformly applying terms across the entire span of technical fields covered. For example, the term "nanostructure" has a single definition that is used in describing each of the five areas of disclosures covered under Class 977 (4). Moreover, the term "nanostructure" is consistently applied to define other terms that are then used to describe the scope of each of the sub-classes (5).
Given the purpose, scope, and consistency across Class 977 and its sub-classes, one can see how they are useful in obtaining a broad picture of nanotechnology patenting activity. With this is mind, below are presented some general results from analyzing patents issued by the USPTO in 2010 under Class 977. While Class 977 may not capture all issued patents that are somewhat related to nanotechnology, the collection of issued patents under Class 977 still provides a useful picture because of its scope and consistency. The information presented below has been obtained from the USPTO's Patent Full-Text and Image Database (PatFT), which is publicly accessible at the following URL: uspto.gov.
In 2010, the USPTO issued a total of 780 patents under Class 977. This was a 47% increase from the 530 patents issued in 2009. Of the 780 patents, 423 patents had two or more corresponding sub-classes and 132 patents had three or more corresponding sub-classes. In other words, the USPTO typically assigns one or two sub-classes under Class 977 to help examiners carry out prior art searches. By looking at the frequency with which particular sub-classes are assigned, one can get a picture of the technical areas of patents issued under Class 977 that seem to be most active. The chart shown below is a normalized plot of the frequency with which all the sub-classes under Class 977, that is, sub-classes 700-963, were assigned to patents that issued in 2010. The normalization is used to account for the fact that the number of sub-classes assigned to any one patent varies across the compilation. The peaks in the frequency of sub-class assignment can correspond to areas in which the level of patenting activity is high.