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The US patent yeast batch continues to swell

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Once again, for the 19th year in a row in fact, IBM is the king of new US patents awarded in a year and talk will now turn to the utility and futility of patents.

The annual rankings of patents awarded by the US Patent and Trademark Office used to come out of that government agency, but in 2007 it stopped because, as the public affairs officer told me at the time, people were too focused on patent counts and not on patent quality. Since then, IFI Claims Patent Services has diced and sliced the data in the USPTO databases and published the annual US patent count rankings, as a means of advertising for more complex patent services it offers for a fee.

By IFI's count, the USPTO office issued 224,505 utility patents in 2011, up by 2 per cent on 2010, which was a record-breaking year. Utility patents are machines or processes and can be electrical, mechanical, or physical in nature, while design patents cover the shape of and ornamentation on things.

Asian companies in particular have loaded on the paperwork for USPTO clerks, with 25 Japanese, South Korean, and Taiwanese companies ranking among the top 50 companies that were issued patents last year. Patent counts, like supercomputing petaflops, are political as much as they are technical and economic phenomena.

"This isn't to say that US companies have lost their verve for patent production, as their patent portfolios are also growing," explained Mike Baycroft, CEO at IFI, in a statement. It seems that Asian companies have apparently made it a higher priority."

Complicating the issue of sizing up the patent portfolios of the world is the fact that patents expire and companies both license and sell them - as well as get their hands on them through acquisitions. The IFI rankings don't take all of these factors into account, but just ranks companies by the number of utility patent grants they receive in the year from the USPTO. This is an oversimplification of the situation, and intentional to help drive business - just like any other subset of freebie data in the IT market.

IBM was granted 6,180 patents in 2011, and the company was crowing like a rooster that this was more than four times the patent grants attained by HP and six times more than what Oracle got. IBM said that more than 8,000 researchers contributed to these patents, with about a quarter of them coming from outside the US.

An IBM spokesperson contacted by El Reg said that if the company's Systems and Technology Group, which makes servers, storage, switches, chips, and systems software, were broken out as a separate entity, it would have over 2,800 patents by itself and would rank fourth on the IFI 2011 patent ranking.

Some of the IBM patents the company cited that were awarded in 2011 include #8,037,000 (Systems and methods for automated interpretation of analytic procedures), #8,005,773 (System and method for cortical simulation), and #8,019,992 (Method for granting user privileges in electronic commerce security domains). These all sound reasonably useful to the layman. But if you troll through the USPTO database, you can find things like # 8,095,941, which was actually issued yesterday by the USPTO, for a System for portion of a day out of office notification, which IBM applied for in September 2006.

Here's how the top 50 patent-getters did in 2011:

Rank Company Name Grants Country
1 International Business Machines Corp 6180 United States
2 Samsung Electronics Co Ltd KR 4894 Korea
3 Canon K K JP 2821 Japan
4 Panasonic Corp JP 2559 Japan
5 Toshiba Corp JP 2483 Japan
6 Microsoft Corp 2311 United States
7 Sony Corp JP 2286 Japan
8 Seiko Epson Corp JP 1533 Japan
9 Hon Hai Precision Industry Co Ltd TW 1514 Taiwan
10 Hitachi Ltd JP 1465 Japan
11 General Electric Co 1448 United States
12 LG Electronics Inc KR 1411 Korea
13 Fujitsu Ltd JP 1391 Japan
14 Hewlett-Packard Development Co L P 1308 United States
15 Ricoh Co Ltd JP 1248 Japan
16 Intel Corp 1244 United States
17 Broadcom Corp 1164 United States
18 GM Global Technology Operations LLC 1095 United States
19 Renesas Electronics Corp JP 1005 Japan
20 Honda Motor Co Ltd JP 997 Japan
21 Toyota Jidosha K K JP 994 Japan
22 Cisco Technology Inc 980 United States
23 Fujifilm Corp JP 971 Japan
24 Micron Technology Inc 947 United States
25 Hynix Semiconductor Inc KR 935 Korea
26 Qualcomm Inc 923 United States
27 Brother Kogyo K K JP 888 Japan
28 Xerox Corp 880 United States
29 Sharp K K JP 872 Japan
30 Siemens AG DE 851 Germany
31 Silverbrook Research Pty Ltd AU 812 Australia
32 Texas Instruments Inc 794 United States
33 Honeywell International Inc 780 United States
34 Semiconductor Energy Laboratory Co 761 Japan
35 AT&T Intellectual Property I L P 721 United States
36 Koninklijke Philips Electronics N V NL 700 Netherlands
37 Boeing Co The 695 United States
38 Denso Corp JP 689 Japan
39 Apple Inc 676 United States
40 Research In Motion Ltd CA 663 Canada
41 LG Display Co Ltd KR 643 Korea
42 Bosch, Robert GmbH DE 622 Germany
43 NEC Corp JP 622 Japan
44 Infineon Technologies AG DE 617 Germany
45 Mitsubishi Denki K K JP 605 Japan
46 Fuji Xerox Co Ltd JP 587 Japan
47 Nokia AB Oy FI 585 Finland
48 ETRI 534 Korea
49 Telefonaktiebolaget L M Ericsson SE 529 Sweden
50 Du Pont de Nemours, E I & Co 523 United States

The number of utility patents issued in a given year is probably not as important as the size of the patent portfolio each company controls. El Reg contacted IFI to get patent counts for the top ten on the 2011 list, but we were told that such data would take days to compile and would nonetheless only be made available to paying customers.

An IBM spokesperson told us that Big Blue has over 34,000 active patents in its portfolio, which is perhaps a smaller number than you might be thinking IBM had. Now you understand why IBM keeps those patent applications rolling.

Sixteen of the vendors in the top 50 count from IFI, including Cisco Systems, Hewlett-Packard, Intel, Microsoft, and Oracle, all had fewer patent grants in 2011 than they had in 2010. Apple is on the rise, breaking into the top 50 in 2010 at number 46 and hitting number 39 on the 2011 list.

Chip makers Renesas, Qualcomm, and Broadcom are also on the up, as are Research in Motion, LM Ericsson, Brother, Canon, and Toshiba. Car manufacturers got lots more patents too. In 2011, with Toyota, Ford, and GM lead the way in terms of patent growth, with Honda growing more modestly.

IFI said that the number of patent applications in flight at the USPTO is probably a better indicator of what a company is doing, research-wise, rather than last year's approved parent count. For example, in 2010, Samsung Electronics had 5,600 patent applications compared to fewer than 5,000 for IBM, and in 2011 the numbers were similar. If Samsung keeps this up, it may eventually eclipse the reigning patent champ. ®

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