European Patent Office Report Shows U.S. Patent Applications Fell by 4% During Pandemic

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U.S. Transport Sector Innovations Dropped By More Than 20%, As Qualcomm Took Lead in U.S. Filings in 2020

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Despite the drop in European patent applications coming from the U.S. in 2020, American companies and inventors continued to drive innovation in a wide range of key technologies, including health care and digital.

The European Patent Office (EPO) today announced that U.S. companies and inventors filed 4.1% fewer patent applications at the EPO in 2020 compared to the previous year, a total of 44,293, according to the EPO Patent Index 2020.

It was the biggest drop among the main regions that account for the majority of patents filed at the EPO. Patent applications from Germany were down 3%, those from Japan by 1.1%, while strong increases came from China (+9.9%) and South Korea (+9.2%).

The overall number of European patent applications across all countries filed in 2020 remained stable, decreasing by 0.7% compared with the previous year. The EPO received 180,250 patent applications in total, which was slightly below the record level attained in 2019 (181,532).

The U.S. nonetheless remained the largest country of origin for European patent applications in 2020, accounting for almost a quarter of the total. After the U.S., Germany, Japan, China and France were the top filing countries in 2020. U.S. firms stayed in the lead in several key technology rankings, including medical technology (accounting for 38.6% of all patent applications at the EPO), computer technology (36.8% share), pharmaceuticals (39.1%), and biotechnology (31.4%).

“Despite the drop in European patent applications coming from the U.S. in 2020, American companies and inventors continued to drive innovation in a wide range of key technologies, including health care and digital,” said EPO President António Campinos. “Demand for patent protection in Europe remained high overall, but we see fluctuations across technology sectors and economic regions. While there is still uncertainty about the development of patenting activities in the months and years to come, we know that it is research and science, backed by a solid intellectual property system, that will foster innovation as the motor of recovery for a healthier world.”

Medical technology regained its position as the leading U.S. technology field for applications with the EPO. Last year’s top field, digital communication, was pushed to third position, computer technology came in second place, as in the previous year. Pharmaceuticals and biotechnology ranked fourth and fifth among the leading tech fields of the U.S.

Among the top 5 U.S. technology fields, the steepest growth was achieved in pharmaceuticals at +13.6% over 2019, while digital communication dropped by 2.2%, and biotechnology, medical technology and computer technology attained almost the same levels.

U.S. companies figured among the EPO’s top applicants in all of these fields, including medical technology (with Johnson & Johnson ranked 1st, Medtronic 2nd, Boston Scientific 4th, and BD 5th), pharmaceuticals (Merck ranked 2nd, Johnson & Johnson 3rd, and University of California 5th), biotechnology (Regeneron Pharmaceuticals 8th, University of California 10th), computer technology (Microsoft 2nd, Intel 3rd and Alphabet 4th) and digital communication (Qualcomm 2nd).

Strongest declines in terms of patent filings originating in the U.S. were recorded in transport technologies (-21.3%), which includes the automotive as well as aerospace industries, and in ‘engines, pumps, turbines’ (-29.2%), which includes many clean energy technologies. In the aircraft/aviation/aerospace sub-field of transport, U.S. companies Raytheon and Boeing filed 44% and 22.5% fewer patent applications, respectively.

The patenting activities of U.S. firms are mirrored in the application developments overall: Among the leading technology fields, pharmaceuticals (+10.2%) and biotechnology (+6.3%) showed the biggest increases in terms of European patent filings. Medical technology (+2.6%) accounted for the most inventions in 2020, retaking the top spot from digital communication, which had been the most active field in 2019. Meanwhile, transport showed the largest drop (-5.5%), especially in the sub-fields of aircraft/aviation/aerospace (-24.7%), and to a lesser extent automotive (-1.6%).

Qualcomm became the new No.1 U.S. patent applicant at the EPO, replacing United Technologies (now Raytheon), and filing a total 1,711 patent applications. Raytheon came in second (1,284 patent applications) followed by Alphabet (1,117), Microsoft (1,087), and Johnson & Johnson (1,049). (Graph: Top U.S. applicants at the EPO in 2020).

The 2020 top applicant ranking reflects the sustained growth of patent applications from China and South Korea. Samsung took the top spot, followed by Huawei and LG.

For detailed statistics, see the EPO Patent Index 2020 at

With 6 400 staff, the European Patent Office (EPO) is one of the largest public service institutions in Europe. Headquartered in Munich with offices in Berlin, Brussels, The Hague and Vienna, the EPO was founded with the aim of strengthening co-operation on patents in Europe. Through the EPO's centralized patent granting procedure, inventors are able to obtain high-quality patent protection in up to 44 countries, covering a market of some 700 million people. The EPO is also the world's leading authority in patent information and patent searching.

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Peter Gorman
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Luis Berenguer Giménez / Rainer Osterwalder