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Big Blue tops US patent grubber list

16th year running

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For the 16th year in a row, IBM has topped the annual list of patent-happy American tech companies. The list tanks high-tech vendors by the number of patents they were awarded in the United States over the previous year.

We can debate about the significance of this feat in a moment. First, the numbers, which ironically have not come from the United States Patent and Trademark Office since 2006, when the office stopped providing data about patent counts. As I was told by the government representative at the time, this is because too many people were focusing on patent quantity and not patent quality. (Considering that the understaffed USPTO has allowed some pretty absurd patents over the years, this was unsurprising).

But a company called IFI Patent Intelligence, based in Wilmington, Delaware, was more than happy to pick up the ball and troll through the USPTO's data, which it stores in its own database and which it dices and slices like the USPTO used to. Think of it as an informal kind of outsourcing from Uncle Sam.

In 2008, IFI reckons that the USPTO issued a total of 157,774 utility patents, referring to items that receive patents for their usefulness - even if an item is, like a perpetual motion machine, is physically impossible to operate. That is up a tiny bit from the 157,284 patents that the USPTO issued in 2007. IFI said further that the number of patent applications rose by 6 per cent in 2008, to 466,147, and the government agency now says that it has a backlog of over 1.2 million patents that are pending approval.

To get its annual bit of fame in the IT space, IFI put out a list of the top 35 companies issued patents by the USPTO, which you can read here (html).

IBM topped the list in 2008, with 4,186 patents, an increase of 33 per cent of the number issued in 2007. Korean electronics giant Samsung came in at number two on the list, as it usually does, with 3,515 patents, up 29 per cent. Japanese electronics maker Cannon was third in the rankings, with 2,114 patents, up only 6 per cent. Microsoft continues to climb in the patent listing, with 2,030 in 2008 and jumping ahead of chip maker Intel, which had 1,776 last year.

Microsoft's patent count rose by 24 per cent in 2008, while Intel's count fell by 5 per cent. Matsushita (finally called Panasonic), Toshiba, Fujitsu, Sony, and Hewlett-Packard rounded out the top ten companies issued patents last year by Uncle Sam. Broadcom and Cisco Systems were climbing in the list, with 643 and 704 patents, respectively, but Sun Microsystems, which came in at 509 in the 2008 list, saw its patent count drop 17 per cent. Memory maker Micron Technology slipped by 15 per cent with only 1,250 patents, but still ranked number twelve.

By IFI's count, there were 4,430 patents issued for semiconductor manufacturing, with another 4,430 issued for multiplex communications. Drug composition, a popular research area (and past-time for some), had 2,990 patents, and biotech companies were issued another 2,680 for their creations and processes.

As you might expect, IFI is pretty gung-ho about patents and is a bit nationalistic as well, but it understands the issues with and limits of patents. "Although data suggest that American companies garnered a minority share of the total number of corporate U.S. patents last year, it's important not to confuse quantity with quality," explained Darlene Slaughter, general manager of IFI in a statement accompanying the patent stats.

"What's clear is that many of the world's largest companies are placing a higher priority on protecting their intellectual property. This trend is occurring both here in the U.S. and abroad especially in Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Germany, and other countries in Europe. Securing patents may be even more important in a down economy, since it gives patent-holders an edge over their competitors."

Since a lot of the patents that were issued in 2008 were based on applications that were made as long ago as 2005 and 2006, there has not - as yet - been an affect on patent applications and awards from the economic meltdown. And given the huge backlog of applications, even if companies do slash their research and development budgets and therefore the number of patentable technologies, the effect may take years to show up in the patent counts.

Patents are one of those issues in IT that drives people nuts - rightly so considering the abuses of high tech vendors. If the New York district attorney can indict a ham sandwich, IBM can probably get a patent on the sandwich and the process that the DA uses as part of a business process re-engineering and outsourcing contract. (That hasn't happened - at least not yet).

But just to joggle your memory, in October 2007, IBM caught a huge amount of flak and had to pull a patent application for its attempt to patent the concept of outsourcing. At the time, Bob Sutor, vice president of open source and standards at IBM, said that IBM was going to be cutting back on business process method patents and work on ones with "significant technical content."

Today, in beating its Big Blue chest about being top of the patent heap, yet again, IBM said that it would this year boost by 50 per cent this year the number of inventions it publishes annually without patent protection, hitting 3,000 inventions. The company added that it would contribute to the open source community statistical and analytical tools that it developed at IBM Research to automatically and empirically measure the quality of patents, presumably to help the patent authorities of the world do a better job.

And finally, IBM wanted to point out that its total number of patents was larger than those from Microsoft, HP, Oracle, Apple, EMC, Accenture, and Google combined. Not that quantity matters, mind you. It's all about the quality. ®

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