Why the number of truly valuable patents is so limited in any given technology area

Minneapolis patent attorney Steve Lundberg, founding shareholder of Schwegman Lundberg & Woessner explains why the number of valuable patents in any given technology area is so limited.

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You may have a handful of patents in any given technology area that are very difficult to design around. And that handful could be anywhere from, you know, a few to, you know, maybe even 20 or 30 or 40, but typically you’re never going to see any given technology area more than about 20 to 30 patents that you really have to wrangle with, okay, in order to avoid those patents to make a product in that area. So why is this?

Why does it always come down to 20 or 30 patents at most in any given technology area? You’d think that if there was 5,000 patents in an area that it would just be proportional. You know, if you had 1,000 patents, you’d have 20 to worry about and if you had 5,000, it would be 100 to worry about. Typically that’s not the case though because that number to worry about typically doesn’t grow very much after a certain point in the number of filings.

And you say why is that? Well, the reason for that is that the original filings in any given area are measured against a dearth or a lack of prior art because there’s a pioneering breakthrough in an area and when you have that pioneering breakthrough you’re typically inventing something very novel that there’s very little prior art. So it’s easy to get a patent, a broad patent on that invention. But what happens very quickly is that as soon as that technology gets into the public domain and other people start working on it, other people start filing patents and as they file more patents it gets increasingly difficult to get another broad patent because you’re now measuring your patent, your invention, your contribution against a body of work that, you know, gets bigger and bigger and bigger with each year.

So you typically have a certain number of patents that are filed early in the development cycle, in the technology cycle that are broad and are very important patents and then that number of broad patents goes way down as the life cycle of the technology progresses.