LED patents – How important are bright ideas?

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By eeNews Europe

The results provide an indication of key innovation trends and which companies look like dominating the LED sector in the forseeable future.

The study, which reckons there are currently more than 22,000 granted U.S. patents relating to LED technologies, most of which were filed in the past 5-10 years, concludes that the major players in the LED industry are currently involved, on an average, in almost three active litigations per company.  They are also active in a number of additional licensing agreements. In many ways the LED industry’s patenting practices appear to have matured at a faster rate that the technology has itself.

iRunway’s analysis pinpoints that about 22,662 U.S. patents have been granted in LED domain with 17,869 patents being related to LED technology while 4,793 patents relate to applications of LED.

iRunway’s analysis pinpoints that about 22,662 U.S. patents have been granted in LED domain with 17,869 patents being related to LED technology while 4,793 patents relate to applications of LED.

The majority of LED related patents are focused on three key technology areas:

  • Light Emissions – 8,932 patents
  • Light Management – 3,826 patents
  • Heat Management – 1,233 patents

In terms of LED applications display technologies account for 3,472 patents while lighting applications have generated 940 patents.  The domination of LED display applications was driven by investments by global electronics manufacturers like Samsung, LG and Panasonic in LED display technology that preceded their push into LED lighting market.

Significant patent investments have been made in areas related to LED efficiency, production cost and other key engineering metrics.

iRunway’s analysis highlights that there are smaller companies, such as Lumileds (now owned by Philips) and Cree that have been heavily involved in R&D activity since the early 2000s.  The patent portfolios of these companies are mid-sized but contain many seminal patents, which increases their value. Global electronics suppliers, like
Samsung and LG, which have much larger R&D budgets but have only entered the LED lighting market in the last five years.  Their patent portfolios are typically large but contain relatively fewer seminal patents. Some of today’s market leaders, such as GE and Osram, appear to fall short in terms of the size and strength of their patent portfolios.

Samsung, LG and Philips dominate the LED patent landscape with 1369 patents, 737 patents and 599 patents each respectively. The Big Three with the addition of Cree (264 patents) have established an advantage over their competitors through patenting in the early growth stages of LED lighting industry. Samsung and LG have done so through the scale of their R&D operations and their interest in developing LED display technology. Philips and Cree have been early movers in the industry and managed to establish R&D programs that have delivered high impact results. Samsung has the highest number of patents in the display sub-domain which is to be expected given the company’s involvement in smart phones and high-end TVs which all use high-performance LED displays as key selling points of the their product offerings.

Seminal patents

The top 15 companies hold around 25% of the seminal patents in the LED domain. Philips has the highest percentage of seminal patents in the LED technology domain, despite having less than half the number of patents assigned to Samsung.

iRunway’s list of seminal LED patents was generated based on a combination of manual research and a proprietary algorithm for strength calculation. The seminal patent set constituted the top 5% of ranked patents. The strength of the patents was determined based on multiple parameters such as infringement detection, number of independent and dependent claims, technology activity rate, backward and forward references, age of the patent, etc.

Philips leads the pack when it comes to seminal LED patents with 6.9% of the total and the only company with possessing more than 5% of the seminal LED patents.  Samsung ranked second in the seminal patent area with 3.97%.  LG have 3.34% of the seminal patents with Cree coming fouth with 2.30%.

In the late 2000s Samsung and LG forged ahead in the LED patent arena by filing in excess of 100 patents annually. Since the early 2000s Philips filed a significant number of patents annually and maintained an average rate of over 25 per year.  The early patenting lead Philips achieved in that periods has given the company ownership of the industry’s most valuable patent portfolio which contains twice the number of seminal patents as its nearest competitor.

LED technology – a fertile ground for litigation

The LED industry has become a lawyer-friendly environment because in the past few years LED patents have been the source of numerous lawsuits. Interestingly, the major European players have been almost as equally busy in the law courts have they have been in their research labs bacuse Philips and Osram have been involved in the highest number of litigations (both as plaintiff and defendant).  Light emission technologies have been the focus of most of the litigation battles for these companies.

One trend has seen universities and research institutions filing lawsuits against manufacturing companies such as Samsung and Philips for infringement of LED technology developed in their optoelectronics research labs. The trend is likely to keep growing with the increasing number patents filed by academic institutions.

Heat management technology has also become a focal point of frequent litigations. But among the various applications categories, lighting appears a regular litigation battleground with Cree, GE, Philips and Osram are involved in litigations that include patents on lighting.

Patent licensing has been growing rapidly for a technology still in its early years. Numerous licensing and cross-licensing agreements are now in place among the key patent holders in the LED industry with many LED related technologies having applications outside of the LED industry.

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