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Tech giants score record patent stash

US patent count soars 31%

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The US Patent and Traedmark Office issued a record-breaking 219,614 utility patents last year, a 31 per cent increase over 2009.

For years, there has been lots o' talk about patent reform, but most of the action in the intellectual property arena is on the filing and receiving of patents, not on exercising some self-restraint. The US Patent and Trademark Office stopped giving out the official patent counts by vendor back in 2006, as much out of embarrassment as its desire to outsource the work to someone else. That someone else turns out to be IFI Claims Patent Services, which gathers up the USPTO data and dices and slices it in interesting ways for fun and profit.

According to the IFI, the number of utility patents issued in 2010 is up about 60,000 from the levels set in 2007 and 2008 (the utility adjective is supposed to mean that they are useful and distinct from patents on chemical compounds). The patent backlog is so bad at USPTO that last May the government agency started Project Exchange, which offered companies and individuals with more than one patent application in process an expedited patent application on one application if they withdrew another one.

It is unclear how much Project Exchange helped boost the patent count in 2010, but the backlog of unexamined applications was down near 750,000 last summer after being as high as 1.2 million in 2008.

The US government has issued nearly 8 million patents since the USPTO was founded in 1790. There are approximately ten times as many trademarks (including Dell owning "cloud computing," which seems absurd). The first patent, signed by President George Washington himself, was for an improved method of creating potash, and over 10,000 patents issued between then and 1836 were lost in a fire. So when the dark times come, you will be able to get a patent on various agricultural and early industrial age implements since the USPTO won't know about them.

IFI ranks the top 50 companies to be granted utility patents each year (you can read the full list here, and as usual, tech companies dominated the list. And as usual, IBM came out at the top of the list, just as it has for the past 18 years. Big Blue was issued 5,896 patents in 2010, an increase of 20 per cent compared to IBM's 2009 patent haul.

Korean tech giant Samsung Electronics has been ramping up its applications for years, and it was issued 4,551 patents in 2010, up 26 per cent from the number of patents it was granted in 2009. Microsoft ranked third in patents granted, with 3,094 (up only 6.5 per cent from a year ago), followed by Canon at third with 2,552 patents (up 15.7 percent), and Panasonic at 2,482 (up 35.7 per cent) rounding out the top five.

Toshiba and Sony had 2,246 and 2,150 patents issued to them in 2010, up 32.4 and 28 per cent respectively. Intel was number eight on the IFI patent rankings, with 1,653 patents, an increase of 7.5 per cent. Those eight vendors held the same rankings in 2010 as they did in 2009. Korea's LG Electronics moved up from number 12 on the 2009 patent list to number nine this year, with 1,490 patents issued to it by the USPTO, and Hewlett-Packard held its number ten position with 1,480 patents.

Every company ranked in the top 50 patents receivers for 2010 were up compared to 2009, except memory chip maker Micron Technology, which dropped from 966 patents issued to it in 2009 to 917 issued to it in 2010.

Apple grew its parent portfolio the most in 2010, with a 94 per cent increase, followed by Qualcomm, up 84 per cent; NEC, rising 74 per cent; and SAP, jumping 70 per cent. On the tech front, Hynix Semiconductor and LG Electronics also chased and got considerably more patents.

In 2009, US-based companies accounted for 49 per cent of all patents issued (that does not mean the work leading to the patent was done in the United States, of course), and in 2010 the US assignees of patents got 50.3 per cent of the utility patent pie. Japanese-based firms accounted for 21.3 per cent of the patents issued last year, followed by South Korea (5.4 per cent), Germany (5.2 per cent), and Taiwan (3.8 per cent).

By technology type, solid state devices and transistors accounted for 3.1 per cent of the patents issued in 2010, with semiconductors comprising 2.7 per cent, data processing, file management, computers, and processing systems collectively getting 2 per cent. Biotech accounted for 2 per cent of patents, and this category is distinct from drug compositions, which made up 2.1 per cent of all patents granted. Multiplex communications was a heavy hitter, with 3.3 per cent of patents.

I wonder how big of a fire 8 million patent grants makes? ®

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