COVID-19 News

USPTO data suggest patent filings dropped as COVID-19 spread

As the COVID-19 pandemic took hold, the number of patent applications filed in the U.S. fell noticeably from preceding months, with the biological and chemical fields taking the biggest hit, according to data compiled by patent attorneys from an Atlanta-based firm.

There were 74,700 utility patent applications filed at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) in the second quarter of 2020, which began in April when many businesses had shut down for safety reasons. That was a drop of 8% compared with 81,314 filed in the fourth quarter of 2019, which ended Dec. 31, the day the first cases of the novel coronavirus were reported in China.

Kate Gaudry, a partner with Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton LLP, said she wasn't sure what to expect when she requested the filing data from the USPTO, considering how the pandemic impacted the broader economy and the legal industry in different ways.

"We didn't really have an initial hypothesis. Many parts of the economy were shut down and many businesses were asking people to work from home, which could have led to situations where there would have been less innovation and patent filings," Gaudry said. "On the other hand, law firms have done pretty well in terms of being able to keep up their work."

Gaudry said the 8% overall drop appears to indicate that widespread remote work did end up depressing patent filings somewhat, although more so in life sciences than in computer technology.

The USPTO data are broken down by the number of filings in the departments at the agency that deal with each type of technology. Filings in the fields of computer networks, cryptography and information security were almost exactly the same or slightly higher in the second quarter of 2020 compared to the fourth quarter of 2019.

However, the number of applications filed in both the biological and chemical fields dropped 20% over the same period. Gaudry said she expected more filings in those areas as scientists in those areas worked to combat COVID-19, but "that's not what we saw at all."

"I think the most notable thing to me was the difference across technology centers, where there was a pretty drastic drop in patent filings in the chemical and life science areas," she said.

Gaudry and her Kilpatrick Townsend colleague Adam Gianola said they suspect the drop can be attributed to the fact that those areas are more dependent than others on research being done in person in a laboratory, most of which were forced to close or scale back on in-person hours.

"It does make sense because many biology and chemistry innovations are going to require laboratory data, and that's harder to do now," Gaudry said.

Gianola said he was surprised that the drop in biological and chemical filings was so drastic within weeks of the pandemic shutdowns.

"I would have thought the data to support patent filings maybe lagged a little bit, such that a switch to work from home might not have impacted things quite so quickly," he said. "But I think we were all caught off guard when things shut down across the board."

On the other hand, the steady or increased filings in computer fields might be attributed to the ease of remote work in those areas, where a home computer can substitute for one in an office or a lab.

"That speaks to our technological capabilities nowadays, and the fact that we were able to very quickly transition to have entire workforces working from home. It was done so seamlessly that innovation didn't miss a beat," Gaudry said.

Since the data only cover the first several months after the pandemic struck the U.S., it remains to be seen what future data for the rest of 2020 will show. It's possible that life sciences filings could have rebounded in the middle of the year as some businesses reopened.

"I've got friends who work in the biotech area, and they're back at work," Gianola said. "I'm hopeful that things are picking back up."

However, the looming specter of a winter spike in infections means there is a chance of future shutdowns that could result in filings dropping again.

"I wouldn't be shocked if bio and chemical filings take a pretty sizable hit for a while," Gaudry said. "If people can't go to a lab because society is shutting down, then it's very difficult to get those innovations."

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