Sony Corporation Patents: 2010-2013

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Sony has a long history of innovation, and their patenting activity reflects this.  Sony is consistently in the IFI CLAIMS Patent Rankings’ Top 50.  For 2013, Sony ranked #4 with 3,098 utility patent grants. This represents a slight increase of 2012 where Sony had 3,032 utility grants.  Sony trails Canon (3,825) and leads Microsoft (2,660). 

Sony’s 2013 Fiscal Year revenue was $72.3B.  In their annual report, Sony allocates this revenue to product lines as shown below.
Sony chart
Sony Corporation's 2013 Product Revenues.  

Using data provided by IFI CLAIMS Patent Services, I will attempt to answer the following questions:
  • What technologies is Sony investing in, as indicated by patent grants and applications?
  • How well do Sony’s intellectual property filings align with product revenues? 
The table below shows the ten most frequent patent classifications used by Sony for the years 2010-2012.  The Cooperative Patent Classification scheme is used, with short descriptions of the topic.  The change from 2012 to 2013 is also shown under the “Trend” Column.  
Year 2010 2011 2012 2013   Trend
H04N (Television) 701 776 1109 1126   1.53%
G06F (Digital Data Processing) 428 405 515 578   12.23%
G11B (information Storage) 395 369 401 320   -20.20%
H04L (Transmission of Digital Information) 325 336 379 363   -4.22%
H01L (Semiconductors) 193 251 295 409   38.64%
G09G (Display Devices) 96 148 228 226   -0.88%
G06T (Image Processing) 112 100 197 230   16.75%
H04W (Wireless Communications) 125 136 145 157   8.28%
G02B (Optical Elements) 114 127 149 137   -8.05%
G02F (Optical Devices) 111 132 161 116   -27.95%
 Sony Corporation's Recent Patents by CPC Code.

Semiconductors, Data Processing and Image Processing are the technology areas showing the most growth.  Patenting in Information Storage and Optical Devices is declining. 

There is no neat correspondence between the technologies and the revenue producing product lines.  Sony’s Mobile Communications (cell phone) business is its top revenue source.  In terms of technology, almost all of the areas listed above contribute to the IP protection of their cell phone business.  The same can be said for gaming consoles, advanced network connected televisions, and digital cameras. 

Sony’s strategy seems to be to build IP around core technologies – they then use those patent protected technologies across their entire product line. 
Another way to look at Sony’s recent patents is using landscape visualization.  Text analytic tools are able to group complex documents (like patents) together based on similar content.  The topic groups can be displayed in a topographic style map.  The image below is based on the KMX Patent Analytics tool provided by IFI CLAIMS and Treparel Information Solutions

Distinct clustered have been color coded.  The legend is shown below the figure.  The legend is based on keywords automatically associated with the documents in each cluster – they are not based on patent classifications.  
Sony cluster map
Sony cluster legend
Landscape View of Sony's 2010-2013 Patents and pre-grant Publications.

The KMX visualization identifies the same general technology areas that we see when we look at CPC classifications.  Again, distinct “products” do not appear in the landscape, but enabling technologies do. 

KMX Patent Analytics is particularly well suited to analyzing large patent collections, and for drilling down to gain insight into specific technology areas.  Consider the area around the “image | display | unit” cluster.  US 8542942 B2, “Tunable guassian filters” published on Sept. 24, 2013, is highlighted in the figure below.
Sony filters cluster
US 8542942 B2, “Tunable guassian filters” in the Patent Landscape.  

In the claims of 8542942, Sony specifies that the invention is applicable to the following list of devices:
  • a personal computer
  • a laptop computer
  • a computer workstation
  • a server
  • a mainframe computer
  • a handheld computer
  • a personal digital assistant
  • a cellular/mobile telephone
  • a smart appliance
  • a gaming console
  • a digital camera
  • a digital camcorder
  • a camera phone
  • a smart phone
  • a portable music device
  • a video player
  • a DVD writer/player
  • a high definition video writer/player
  • a television
  • a home entertainment system

That’s a very comprehensive list that would seem to cover all of Sony’s present and future consumer electronics products. 

Given Sony’s broad product strategy, the approach of developing and patenting key enabling technologies, and then using those technologies across multiple products, seems smart.  Given Sony’s large patent portfolio, they would appear to be well positioned to compete in all their target markets.