Richard Lloyd

A new report by technology consulting firm iRunway has thrown a spotlight onto the patent landscape in the semiconductor memory sector. It looked at the largest patent holders, the growing presence of NPEs and the increase in patent litigation over the last 20 years. The report also identified those companies that own the largest portfolios of seminal technologies and reveals several smaller players that boast particularly high quality stockpiles.

In terms of the largest patent owners, it is mostly a who’s who of the semiconductor sector. Micron leads the way with more than 5,000 IP assets, followed by Samsung, Toshiba, IBM and Intel. The top 15 assignees in iRunway’s study is dominated by operating companies, although Round Rock, the NPE formed in 2010 with 4500 patents formerly owned by Micron, is at number 13.

The report also looked at the owners of the highest quality semiconductor memory patents, which it describes as seminal. SanDisk has the largest number with 444, followed by Micron, Intel, Qualcomm and Samsung. Although it is not among the top 15 assignees by total number of patents, Qualcomm’s portfolio of semiconductor memory assets is shown to be particularly strong as 50% of its granted patents are characterised as seminal. Among NPEs, Conversant has a particularly strong portfolio with 154 seminal patents, putting it at number six in the top 15 assignees. Round Rock is at eight with 88 seminal patents.

While some critics of the NPE sector claim that they typically assert poor quality patents, iRunway’s research shows that, at the top end of the market, the reverse is actually the case. It is also notable that a number of companies that have very strong licensing businesses, such as Qualcomm and Rambus (both of which have, ludicrously, been described as trolls in the past), feature among the top owners of seminal patents.  

In order to determine which patents are seminal iRunway analysed 63,000 granted patents out of the more than 80,000 IP assets in the sector. The report defined seminal patents as “a set of strong, significant and high-value patents determined through ranking of the landscape across a number of objective parameters”. The top 5,000 patents from the analysis constitute the seminal set.

By identifying who owns the highest quality semiconductor memory patents the report also uncovered a number of players with smaller but very good quality rights. Silicon Valley company Super Talent Electronics, for example, owns 58 granted patents of which 50 are rated as seminal, which is by far the highest proportion in the report. 

Although the largest patent owners in the sector are still predominantly operating companies iRunway’s research does point to the development of a more complex licensing dynamic. That has, in part, been fuelled by the growing number of NPEs that have become significant players. These are led by Round Rock and Conversant, but also include Intellectual Ventures (which owns around 240 patents), Taiwan’s ITRI (which boasts approximately 140 US patents), Irish IP company Longitude Licensing, Acacia and RPX (which owns over 110 patents in the sector).

Both Conversant and IV feature among the top five companies with the most patents involved in litigation since 1993 in a ranking that is headed by SanDisk but which also includes Rambus and Texas Instruments. iRunway’s research shows that, in common with many other sectors in the tech industry, the number of patents which are the subject of litigation has risen steadily since 1993. Although the report contains no predictions of patent litigation to rival that seen in the smartphone wars, it does highlight the flux in the sector around key technologies as worth keeping an eye on.