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IBM surpassed itself by winning more patents last year than anyone else. Announcing the record haul, it called today for "sensible" patent reform.

The computer giant is to host an online initiative that encourages "smaller" - i.e. just about everyone else on the planet - enterprises to debate efforts to help improve the quality of patents.

IBM said the Inventors' Forum consolidates the Community Patent Review and Open Source as Prior Art initiatives it launched 12 months ago to tighten up on patents, by making it easier to search prior art and clean up wording of patents.

IBM's backing come at a time of debate over the value of patents. Increasingly, patents are seen as either an exercise in corporate egotism or a means for lawyers to make money and for large companies to keep small companies down using patent violation suits.

In 2006, IBM filed 3,651 US patents, beating its closest rival Samsung Electronics on 2,453, to take the top slot for the fourteenth consecutive year in a row.

Certainly for IBM, patents are a way for individuals progress up the corporate ladder. Engineers and fellows collect patents to help improve their career prospects, through things like better salary and position.

However, a Booz Allen Hamilton survey of 1000 global companies released this week found zero correlation between billions of dollars pumped into R&D and patents by big companies and those companies' actual financial performance. Despite being one of the industry's top spenders on R&D, IBM failed to make Booz Allen's list of top innovators.

The US Supreme Court, meanwhile, will next month debate the very need for patents. A Software Freedom Law Center amicus brief filed in a Microsoft v AT&T case has asked America's highest court to invalidate all software patents. The case is due to be heard on February 21.®

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