The high value of U.S. patents

When it comes to the value of patents, the numbers show that U.S. inventions are among the most useful and the most successful commercially.

U.S. patents are worth just over $3 trillion.

The data comes from a company called PatentVector, which has devised a way of figuring out the — often complicated — value of intellectual property (PDF, 723KB).

“The breadth and scope of new technologies patented in the United States today is breathtaking,” says Andrew Torrance, chief executive of PatentVector. “From cupholders to computers, mittens to mRNA vaccines, and scissors to spacecraft, the U.S. patent system continues to grant a disproportionate share of the most important and valuable patents in the world. Other countries, such as China, are starting to close the gap, but it remains a very large gap to close.”

PatentVector calculates that Chinese inventions are worth about $488 billion.

Medical device and information technology patents are disproportionately represented among the most valuable patents, Torrance says. Women, he notes, are underrepresented among the top patent holders: only 14 of the top 650 inventors are women. But he hopes that ratio will soon change.

Woman pointing to computer screen (© Heinz Troll/European Patent Office)
Marta Karczewicz’s video compression inventions have had an enormous impact on everything from online streaming to augmented reality on mobile devices. (© Heinz Troll/European Patent Office)

Marta Karczewicz is among the notable women inventors. She played an important role in creating the video compression technology that makes Zoom and other video services work. She is the highest-ranked female inventor in PatentVector’s calculation.

The company works with Invent Together, a coalition of organizations, universities and companies working to boost diversity among inventors and helping more women like Karczewicz to succeed. “We are hoping to use our data and deep information to improve outcomes for female inventors in the future,” Torrance says.

Quality over quantity

Overall, PatentVector has found 65 inventors are responsible for patents worth at least $1 billion. (Frederick Shelton IV, an employee of a medical device subsidiary of Johnson & Johnson, a company called Ethicon, holds 95 of the world’s most 200 valuable patents.)

Man sitting at table surrounded by other men standing (Courtesy of Frederick Shelton)
J&J inventor Frederick Shelton IV (sitting) with other engineers (Courtesy of Frederick Shelton)

PatentVector was started by a law professor, an information science professor and a software engineer. The company uses artificial intelligence to sort through 132 million patent documents kept by the European Patent Office in Munich, the world’s biggest collection. It uses a proprietary algorithm to weigh patent citations and estimate the value of every patent in the database.

Bar graph of total value of patents, with U.S. at top, then China, Japan, Germany and South Korea. Image of hand holding glowing light bulb. (State Dept./M. Gregory. Source: Patent Vector. Image: © Dilok Klaisataporn/
The most valuable patents, rounded and unadjusted for purchasing power across jurisdictions, belong to the U.S., with $3 trillion; China, $488 billion; Japan, $97 billion; Germany, $12 billion; and South Korea, $7 billion. (State Dept./M. Gregory)

In 2020, there were 1.6 million patents granted by roughly 185 countries. (The 2021 figures have not yet been published by the World Intellectual Property Organization.)

In total, just over 50 million patents have been granted worldwide. But many patents are worthless. They might be solid concepts that no company ever wanted to buy, good ideas that failed or real clunkers, like the crustless peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich patent that was not renewed. Patent holders must pay a fee to keep a patent in effect.

Once PatentVector scales the list down to eliminate the nonsensical and the illegal, there are about 16 million patents that are considered valuable.

U.S. inventors of surgical instruments, touch-screen devices and gene-altering technology are among those holding patents worth the most. “When it comes to valuable patents,” Torrance says, “the United States leads the way.”

Freelance writer Holly Rosenkrantz wrote this article.