Tips for Identifying Seminal Patents

Denise Deverelle Crown explores different indicators of seminal patents and tips for mining your portfolio.

At Innography, we work with all types and sizes of organizations, so the questions we receive range from basic patent search to questions about how to determine what a patent is worth. One question we often hear has to do with methods for identifying seminal patents.  Seminal patents represent an invention so important that it creates or shifts a particular technology space.  Other inventors cite it as prior art for their own inventions, which can be improvements or enhancements to the original idea.

There are several clues to which patents in any given search set can be considered seminal.  Our PatentStrength™ algorithm helps uncover them in seconds, but not everyone who reads our blog uses Innography (yet) so here are some clues to help you find seminal patents:

  • A large number of forward citations from other inventors (not self-citations by the same inventor) relative to the search set.  For example, if you perform a patent search on LED technology and find most patents have 20 or 30 forward citations but one in particular has hundreds, this is an important clue.  This is particularly important if there are few backward citations, indicating this invention made it to the patent office early.
  • A busy market with heavy competition, innovation and patent litigation, such as the smartphone space. Litigation is an excellent predictor of value as no one would bother to fund an expensive patent litigation case on a patent without value.
  • An early priority date relative to the search set.  This indicates the invention reached the patent office early, and thus set the tone for technological innovation.
  • A broad scope of claims.  If the claims cover a wide swath of a technology space, this is an important indicator of a valuable patent.

These are what I’d consider to be the traditional factors, yet there are other clues. 

Patents associated with large patent families are a further indicator of value. These indicate the holder of the patents has made a large investment in the future of this technology.

The revenue associated with the products enabled by the patent is another useful clue, particularly so early in the life of a patent.  For example, Nest Labs brought a product to market not long after patent filings, and generated $300 million in revenue from their inventions.

Broad jurisdictional coverage could be another clue, especially in emerging technology markets.  If the inventor goes to the expense to file in multiple jurisdictions in a new technology market, the inventor may be anticipating that the patent will be valuable, or that some white space is found that requires widespread patent protection.

Grants are important, but it helps also to look at patent applications.  If an application is still in the prosecution phase, but there are third-party forward citations against it, you might anticipate a new technology space or significant innovation is underway.

And finally, some theorize that multiple inventors can indicate a patent is important and complex. Of course, there can be very important patents with a single inventor. 

Innography has an automated report, the Infringement Hunting Playbook, which will analyze the global universe of patents to find possibly infringing technology.   Many potential infringers are a further indication of value, even if actual litigation has not occurred yet.

In short, finding seminal patents is an art and science. Next time you are buying or selling patents double-check these factors, you might have a more valuable asset than you imagine.


Deanna R. Jones, 06.15.2015

Thanks for the information! I hope that these clues will help me to determine whether my patent is considered seminal. It’s really interesting how patents that have hundreds of citations are considered seminal. I haven’t searched for the number of citations that my patent has, so I hope to see that it has at least more than thirty citations.

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