IBM held its long-time place as the top recipient of U.S. patents in 2020 with 9,130 inventions, followed by Samsung, Canon and Microsoft. Others in the top 10 include Apple and Intel, according to research firm IFI.
While the total number of issued patents dropped slightly from a record of 354,428 in 2019, published patent applications ticked upwards, suggesting intellectual property remains as hot a commodity as ever. The pandemic does not appear to have had an immediate effect on patent volume—though it’s too soon to know for sure as new patent applications are only published after 18 months.
IFI’s research also includes a section on the top 10 fastest growing new technologies that appear in patent applications. Some of the results, which cover 2016 to 2020, are not surprising: patents related to the buzzy fields of machine learning and quantum computing account for the number four and five slots respectively.
More surprising is the second fast growing category, “electronic smoking devices,” which compromises a variety of vaping patents, most of which were obtained by tobacco giants, Altria and Philip Morris.
The fast-growing category overall, which is determined by codes assigned by the U.S. Patent Office, is one titled “Computer systems based on biological models.” The category, for which IBM received 2,789 patents last year, appears to span a wide variety of inventions related to so-called “neural networks” and other techniques that imitate brain functions. Two examples of such patents, issued to IBM and Microsoft, are described below:
The third-fastest growing category of patented new technology is titled “Angiosperms—new flowering patents,” and is dominated by Monsanto and other agricultural firms, according to IFI.
While patents are often associated with innovation, they can also be controversial. In recent years, critics have claimed the U.S. Patent Office has been issuing too weak patents, which can fall into the hands of so-called “patent trolls“—firms that don’t produce anything but make a business of demanding payments from companies that do in order to license their technology. The issue, and related ones involving patent validity, has been the subject of numerous Supreme Court decisions in the past decade.
Here is a list of the top 20 patent recipients for 2020, including the number of patents they received:
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Biden’s inauguration was good news for our world
Good morning. David Meyer here in Berlin, filling in for Alan.
I’m a South-African-British dual citizen living in Germany. So, while I’ve been saddened by the rancor that’s infected American politics over recent years, and while I naturally have personal opinions on the issues that divide the country, I’m not an American voter, and my family and I have no direct stake in the choices that American voters make.
Except when it comes to one particular issue: the climate emergency.
The world is heating up due to human actions, and there is strong scientific consensus that this will have terrible outcomes if not mitigated. We’re seeing them already, in the U.S., in Germany, in the U.K., in South Africa—everywhere. We all share this world, we are all suffering from its degradation, and we must all act to save it.
That responsibility lies with every country, but there’s no getting around the fact that the greatest onus to cut carbon emissions rests on the biggest emitters, namely China, the U.S., the EU, India and Russia. The fifth entry on that list is dragging its heels—and shame on the Putin regime for that. But China, the EU and India are all taking this challenge seriously, and it is of the utmost importance that the U.S., the second-biggest emitter, does the same.
Based on this, I can only applaud yesterday’s inauguration of President Joe Biden. I’d do the same for a Republican president who took the climate emergency seriously—on this side of the pond, it’s much less of a partisan issue, and I hope that will soon become true in the U.S. as well.
As soon as he took office, Biden was a whirlwind of climate-defending activity. Most importantly, he recommitted the U.S. to the Paris Agreement, which aims to keep global warming well below 2 degrees Celsius. The significance of this is enormous.
Before yesterday, countries producing half of all global carbon emissions had committed to carbon neutrality or net-zero emissions. “Today’s commitment by President Biden brings that figure to two-thirds,” said United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres as he welcomed the move.
But, Guterres warned, “there is a very long way to go. The climate crisis continues to worsen, and time is running out to limit temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius and build more climate-resilient societies that help to protect the most vulnerable.”
I have no doubt that the U.S. will be rewarded for bringing its considerable heft to this fight, not only in terms of national security—climate change is a far more fundamental threat than terrorism—but also when it comes to international standing. The country will find it easier to achieve its foreign-policy aims when others see it as a partner rather than a holdout.
It should also go without saying that clean-energy investors will find the new administration’s policies rewarding. Solar stocks are on a tear, thanks to the prospect of more stimulus and subsidies, and the likely continuation of low interest rates that aid financing for new projects. Unsurprisingly, with a green-hued infrastructural push on the way, a BofA note this morning points out that fund managers are throwing money into energy and materials.
All in all, yesterday’s transition provides grounds for climate optimism around the world. But now there’s work to do. More news below.
Do government deficits matter?
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In support of political contributions
Most Americans don’t want CEOs involved in politics. A poll conducted last week by Golin and Ipsos found only 41% favored CEOs weighing in on disputed elections, and only 43% wanted them speaking out on impeachment. On the other hand, 74% say CEOs should call for unity and a peaceful transfer of power, and 57% believe it was appropriate for CEOs to speak out after the January 6 insurgency at the Capitol. That pretty well tracks with the way most CEOs and business groups have behaved since election day. They kept their powder dry until all legitimate avenues for disputing the election were exhausted, then came out strongly endorsing the election results and attacking efforts to undermine them. Relatively few have backed impeachment. (You can see the poll results here.)
But how about political contributions? That’s the question raised last week, as a host of companies—Marriott, AT&T, American Express, Best Buy, Cisco, Comcast, Dow and Amazon among them—suspended campaign contributions to members of Congress who challenged the election results. Another large group—Microsoft, Boeing, Blackrock, Coca-Cola, JP Morgan, Ford, GM, UPS, Goldman Sachs and Citigroup—temporarily halted all political contributions to members of both parties. (Quartz has a more comprehensive list of what companies did here.)
Some business leaders are even contemplating permanently shutting their political action committees and exiting the money game altogether. But absent a broader overhaul of campaign finance—which is unlikely anytime soon—I think that’s a mistake. Most big companies remain balanced players in the money game, dividing their dollars roughly equally between members of each party. Walmart, for instance, has kept its contributions at exactly 50-50. Their strategies have less to do with trying to influence outcomes, and more to do with assuring they have access to whoever wins.
The more important question for 2021 is how big business uses that access. There are a host of issues where business has the potential to help broker positive outcomes for the U.S. economy and society: economic stimulus, infrastructure, worker training, climate change. On each of these, business leaders occupy the center, and can help bring the parties together to solve urgent problems.
But on tax and regulatory issues, in particular, corporations will be playing defense. And they’ll be tempted to use what influence they can muster to seek tax breaks and regulatory exemptions that aren’t in the broader public interest. That’s where the commitment to stakeholder capitalism will be tested. The nation desperately needs business involved in government. But business, now more than ever, needs to use its influence to focus on solving long-term challenges.