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Why you shouldn’t believe everything you read about 5G patents.

Most reports on 5G patents point to Chinese companies as having a lead in the number of patents held, giving the impression that China is ahead of the pack when it comes to 5G development. But a closer examination of the data finds there’s another story.

CIPO and Head of IPR & Licensing

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CIPO and Head of IPR & Licensing

CIPO and Head of IPR & Licensing

5G is the next evolution of mobile wireless technology. More than just an incremental step, 5G will bring high speed, low latency and reliable connectivity enabling a host of new applications, creating a dramatic impact across industries from automotive to medical and IoT. It has the potential to transform the way we live and work and kick-start a fourth industrial revolution.

It’s that potential of a diverse impact, across a wide range of industries, that makes intellectual property such a key part of the 5G era, and it’s why it’s so interesting to measure the companies leading the way on 5G development.

However, the approach to quantifying this leadership can paint a misleading picture. The patent intelligence division of the law firm of Bird & Bird, twoBirds Pattern, examined news articles and studies around 5G standard essential patents (SEPs) and found that the people writing about patents often get it wrong concerning which companies own the largest 5G SEP portfolios. They found that studies, in addition to being premature at this stage, are often over-simplistic or flawed, and that seemingly small corrections produce dramatically different results. 

Courtesy of Bird & Bird

Many studies looking at 5G patent leadership simply count the number of patents declared to ETSI as being possibly essential to 5G. However, declarations are not independently assessed, and it can be difficult to determine whether a patent is truly “essential to” or if it’s merely “related to” 5G.

Indeed, if certain essentiality filters are applied, such as those used in recent court cases, the results look dramatically different.

For example, when the essentiality filter used in the “Unwired Planet v Huawei” court case is used, Bird & Bird’s analysis found that Ericsson takes the top spot with 15.8 percent of all 5G SEPs. 

Image courtesy of Bird & Bird

Therefore, this also means that the EU leads among countries/regions with 26.8 percent of all 5G SEPs.

Image courtesty of Bird & Bird

Other issues can complicate the picture, too. There are some inconsistencies as to how quickly declarations appear on ETSI’s website, and this can inadvertently lead to bias against certain companies. Moreover, some studies look at patent “families,” rather than just examining declarations, but that can exclude the youngest patents – important in a growing and fast-moving field like 5G.

The bottom line is that any study that does not filter the raw number of declared patents (ideally through an essentiality audit) is unreliable. The true story of 5G patent leadership is much more complicated than the prevalent media narrative.

Read the twoBirds pattern paper here. Read more about our own estimation of future 5G patent portfolios here.

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