The History of QR Codes

Posted by Nicholas M. Roberts

A short while back I mentioned a German trademark in my [QR Codes vs. Data Matrix] blog. I mentioned Dieter and Ulrich having the patent for Data Matrix codes, but I said nothing about the patent for QR codes. QR Codes were invented in Japan by Denso Wave, a subsidiary of the automobile manufacturer Toyota. The company used these codes on automotive parts to track them and account for inventory.

Although it is roughly the same technology as the original German Data Matrix codes, it is handled by a separate document. How is this possible? There can only be one patent for a single invention. Technically, the Japanese patent is merely a nationalization of a previously existing patent: the one of Dieter and Ulrich.

As I mentioned before, the German patent was assigned in 1992. Denso Wave’s patent is from 1994. This span of only two years shows that Denso Wave quickly noticed to possibilities of the QR technology. Perhaps that is the reason Denso Wave is not holding tight to the reins of their patent. They still seem to want credit for their work and insist the term “QR Code” is a trademark of their company (they even registered qrcode.com). They just support and encourage other companies’ uses. A car manufacturer’s leniency has allowed QR codes to become a cheap marketing tool for companies across the entire world. However it took a different industry to turn a technology into a phenomenon.

In 2002, an army of cellular service providers, handset makers and other cell phone-related companies collaborated in an effort to increase the compatibility of mobile phone cameras. They decided that giving the cameras the ability to scan barcodes would be their next approach. Within a single year, you could not purchase a phone in Japan without the technology built in. And there were enough reasons to use the software. QR codes were everywhere; on vending machines, packaging for merchandise, and even in McDonalds where consumers could scan them to access nutritional information.

The growth in QR code popularity is evident in Western culture as well, but is has not been as rapid. Differences in the society and cultures are the leading factors. However, just because the change is more gradual does not mean that it will be less impactful. In the late 1990s, only a small percentage of families had internet – or even a computer in their homes. Now mom and dad have their own computers and so do each of the kids. It may still be some time away, but I believe that with the right type and amount of support, QR codes can reach the same level of popularity in the U.S. as they did their first year in Japan.

Learn more about Denso Wave and the QR code patent at their official website.