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OpenAI, Microsoft or Google: Who's Winning the Gen AI Patent Battle?

The answer might surprise you

Ben Wodecki

February 7, 2024

3 Min Read
Robot hand pointing to a sphere with the letters AI printed on it
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At a Glance

  • More than half a million AI patent applications were filed in the last five years. Generative AI comprised 22% of them.
  • Surprisingly, OpenAI had a poor showing - it was not even in the top 25 of applicants. IBM was the leader, by far.

As interest in generative AI has soared, so has the number of patent applications seeking to protect this technology.

But the company leading in AI applications is not OpenAI, the maker of ChatGPT. It is also not Google, with its groundbreaking Transformer technique. It is not OpenAI’s strategic partner, Microsoft, as well. Rather, it is IBM, the granddaddy of Big Tech whose AI-powered Deep Blue computer was the first to beat a world chess champion, in 1997.

New research from IFI Claims Patent Services found that IBM holds 1,591 applications patent applications related to generative AI, a third more than Google and more than double the number filed by Microsoft.

Patent applications are a key indicator of what “hot” technologies companies are chasing and seeking to protect, according to IFI.

The number of patent applications in generative AI has grown at a compound annual rate of 31% over the past five years while grants have risen by 16%. (While generative AI seems like a recent development, its underlying tech has been around for years.)

Out of more than half a million AI patent applications in the past five years, generative AI comprised 22%. "The world is certainly heading in this direction, and companies have been hard at it in the race to claim patent space in the area," the report said.

Related:USPTO Director: ‘Sufficient’ Human Contribution Needed for IP Protection, CES 2024

The top category targeted by generative AI patent applications? Computing arrangements based on biological models – meaning those relating to medicine, ecology, microbiology and virology. An example is creating a virtual heart to predict the sequence of cardiovascular disease. The next highest category is pattern recognition.

Big Blue dominates

IBM has a long history of being a prolific patent filer. Since 1993, IBM has only failed to top the list of patent awardees once: in 2022, losing out to Samsung.

In generative AI, IBM, the creator of the watsonx AI platform, focused its applications on outputs relating to video, text, speech and images.

“With any powerful, emerging technology, patents are a strong indicator of which companies will dominate the space down the road,” said Ronald Kratz, CEO of IFI Claims. “Investors should take note of the corporations protecting inventions in promising new areas.”

What about OpenAI?

Surprisingly, “the company behind ChatGPT, which set the world on fire and is practically a household name now, isn’t one of the top ten applicants in GenAI. It isn’t even in the top 25,” the report said.

OpenAI only filed “fewer than five patents,” according to IFI Claims. “That is surprising for an organization that is knowledge-based” and whose tech relates to “large language models and transformer architectures using artificial neural networks.”

Related:AI Cannot Be Inventors on Patents, UK Supreme Court Rules

Others have filed GPT-related patent applications, including IBM, Microsoft, Salesforce and Adobe. The report noted that Salesforce, for example, was granted a patent covering spatial-temporal reasoning through pretrained language models. Other companies, such as Nvidia and Apple, are focusing on more narrow areas like solely speech innovations.

Some explanations for OpenAI’s few filings: More could be in the works or the company is opting to retain its IP in the form of trade secrets, like how it kept the underlying workings of models like GPT-4 concealed.

Read more about:

ChatGPT / Generative AI

About the Author(s)

Ben Wodecki

Jr. Editor

Ben Wodecki is the Jr. Editor of AI Business, covering a wide range of AI content. Ben joined the team in March 2021 as assistant editor and was promoted to Jr. Editor. He has written for The New Statesman, Intellectual Property Magazine, and The Telegraph India, among others. He holds an MSc in Digital Journalism from Middlesex University.

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