Toyota is rapidly gaining on Ford Motor Co. as the auto industry's leading holder of U.S. technology patents, surpassing General Motors and Chrysler LLC. The most recent score: Ford has 6,375 patents, compared with Toyota's 6,086. GM holds 5,992 patents while Chrysler has 1,286, according to a PatentCafe.com report.
According to the patent database, Toyota has surpassed Ford in green technologies.
But Gibbs thinks that at least a fifth of Toyota's patents are legally insecure.
Gibbs was asked to present his patent research findings to the Presidential Task Force on Autos in late March without drawing conclusions about individual automakers. The only commentary in his high-level presentation was that a reform of U.S. processes could benefit automakers if it places more scrutiny on patent applications before they are approved.
Authorities in Europe now subject patent applications to much more intense questioning before granting an award. And even after a patent is awarded, rivals have nine months to challenge it.
Says Gibbs: "I could submit a patent application every day in the United States and probably have a good chance of having it approved, if I could come up with the $15,000 to $30,000 it costs for each application.
"The result in the United States is that patents are granted for a lot of things that aren't true technological innovation and will never stand up to a court challenge.
Patent security became a lively competitive issue after a 2007 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that declared patents must do more than combine existing technologies.
The ruling involved an infringement lawsuit between Teleflex Inc. and KSR International over Teleflex's electronic throttle control patent. The court struck down the patent because it relied on existing vehicle technology.
The ruling signaled that other auto industry intellectual-property rights could be vulnerable to new challenges.
Gibbs thinks the tougher scrutiny in Europe partly explains why Volkswagen AG has a comparatively low number of patents: 728. But his analysis indicates that VW has the fewest number of what he calls "poor patents" that could be successfully challenged.