Patents and the Fourth Industrial Revolution

Patents and the Fourth Industrial Revolution


We live in the age of rapid technological advancements and in recent times, we have witnessed the dawn of a new era within this realm, which can be called the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR). Justifying the label of a ‘Revolution’, the phenomenon exhibits potential to make large scale impact for the long term. Businesses, analysts and the State have begun to consider the benefits and uses of this technology in daily activities and governance.


The term “industrial revolution” echoes the omnipresence of the recent technological advancements as well as their unsettling potential. While previous industrial revolutions resulted in increasing automation of repetitive physical labor, 4IR goes numerous steps ahead: it results in the large-scale automation of entire teams of tasks, as well as repetitive intellectual tasks antecedently completed by human beings. 4IR can significantly improve the effectiveness and versatility of production processes and expand the worth of products and services.

The industry and policy makers in Europe and beyond are already identifying the shift towards “smart” factories functioning autonomously as a significant challenge. Similarly, deployment of allied objects in transport (autonomous vehicles), energy (smart grids), cities, healthcare and agriculture overwhelmingly affect the ways these sectors are being systemized.

Like the preceding industrial revolutions, 4IR highlights major economic and social issues. The nature of human work undergoes a change due to growing automation of repetitive intellectual tasks thus altering the labor market balance. Apart from being obliged to rework their business models, the businesses also must acclimatize with new forms of competition.

Policy makers are having to think beyond just investing in the training of the 4IR workforce. They are confronted with not only supporting and regulating new digital infrastructures but also formulating requisite legal bases to safeguard consumer rights, cybersecurity and competition in the digital era.


The European Patent Office (EPO) on 10 December, 2020 issued a press release accompanied by a 75-page study titled “Patents and the Fourth Industrial Revolution – the global technology trends enabling the data-driven economy”. This study examined global trends in the area of the fourth industrial revolution (4IR) related technological innovations. The study defines 4IR as “the full integration of information and communication technologies (ICT) in the context of manufacturing and application areas such as personal, home, vehicle, enterprise and infrastructure,” which signals a “radical step towards a fully data-driven economy.” The study carried out by the EPO looked atIR related inventions claimed in patent applications filed in a minimum of two different patent offices 2000 and 2018. Findings made during the study reveal that between 2010 and 2018 4IR related patent filings grew at an annual rate of almost 20 percent, almost five times faster than the average of all technology fields. This fast growing category of inventions includes smart objects, the Internet of Things (IoT), Big Data, 5G, and Artificial Intelligence (AI).

Marks & Clerk’s own research into AI filing trends as well as additive manufacturing 3D printing) patents yield a similar conclusion, as both technologies exhibit potential to disrupt traditional manufacturing industries and production lines vi-a-vis all kinds of products ranging from medical supplies to prefabricated cars. The 4IR inventions have been divided into three categories:

  1. Core technologies (Hardware, Software and Connectivity): Technology that make it possible to transform any object into a smart device connected via the internet.
  2. Enabling technologies (Analytics, Security, Artificial intelligence, Position determination, Power supply, 3D systems, User interfaces): Used alongside connected objects.
  3. Application domains (Home, Personal, Enterprise, Manufacturing, Infrastructure, Vehicles): Potential of results consequent to connection of objects can be exploited.


4IR is propelled by scientific progress, or in other words patented inventions. Patent offers the inventor and affiliated organisation exclusive rights of exploitation in return of public disclosure and limited knowledge sharing. This monopoly is the return on the investment made into the research and development of said invented product/process. Patent also generates regular revenue for the patentee through licensing contracts. Patents are also used as leverage in devising collaborations for research and development for further innovation.

Patent rights facilitate the protection of patented inventions from unauthorised use by third parties in their personal, commercial or research activities for the statutory period, mostly 20 years. This holds true for products as well as processes. It is in fact a well established strategic practice in patent law to constantly design better ways of producing a generic product. Securing a patent for this inventive process would help the patentee maintain a competitive advantage against rival players in the market.

Creating and managing an effective patent strategy relies on a certain level of IP awareness in a business. For instance, key stakeholders need to understand the technologies that they are using, and the patent landscape within which they are working. Likewise, patent and/or R&D managers need to build up knowledge as to the types of innovation that might be protectable, the strategic benefit of patent protection in each instance, and what competitive patent threats they might face.

Traditionally, these issues have been sector specific, with patent rights clearly attributable to different industries. With the onset of IoT technologies, however, production engineering is becoming increasingly intertwined with communications engineering and automation technologies. This means that internal patent managers will encounter entirely new parts of the patent landscape, and hitherto unknown issues will likely arise. In the short term, this means understanding what this new patent landscape and the rise of IoT and related innovations mean for existing operations and competitive activity in a company’s specific technical area, and adjusting IP strategies to match.

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