The IBM Patent Machine Keeps A-Cranking In 2012
January 14, 2013 Timothy Prickett Morgan
It has been so long since IBM was not the company at the top of the list of firm issued utility patents by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office that no one can remember who used to be at the top. With the rankings for 2012, Big Blue has been the undisputed leader since 1992, when it was in the middle of both a recession and an identity crisis and yet kept investing in research and development.
As we explain every year when this story rolls around in January, the USPTO stopped doing official counts and publicizing the number of patents issued to companies all over the world from the United States federal government back in 2006. This work has been picked up by IFI Claims Patent Services, which builds its own database of patent applications and grants for both utility patents, which covers machines or processes that are electrical, mechanical, or physical, and design patents, which cover the shape of objects and their ornamentation. Traditionally, the USPTO ranked companies by the number of utility patents they were granted each year, and IFI Claims has continued to assemble such a list for the past six years now. The latest ranking of the top 50 utility patent grantees can be found here.
IBM topped the list with 6,478 patents granted, a relatively modest increase of a little less than 5 percent compared to 2011’s patent haul. The interesting bit is what happens if you drill down into those patents. First, IBM says that over 8,000 researchers helped drive those patent grants, which is a very large number of people to keep on the payroll for any organization and which is a testament that Big Blue still believes in research and invention. If you drill down into the profile of IBM’s patent report here, you can see who the top inventors are at IBM and where they work. You can also see that IBM really cranked out the patent applications in 2012, with 7,296 application , although nothing like the level it sported in 2008 and 2009, when it put in the paperwork for 9,268 and 9,121 patent applications, respectively.
The other interesting bit that you can see is that the number of patents granted has nearly doubled in the past decade for Big Blue, and that is because the company is increasingly seeking patent protection on ideas embedded in software and services as well as in fundamental materials and electronics research or products. In fact, you can see that last year IBM had 760 patents relating to database, file management, or data structures. Microsoft had 433 patents in this database area, followed by Google with 279, Oracle with 175, SAP with 149, Yahoo with 108, and EMC with 95.
IBM had another 467 patents covering software development, installation, or management. There were another 533 various “data processing” patents and another 254 patents relating to virtual machine task or process management. IBM had 609 patents relating to “electrical computers and digital processing” relating to transferring data between systems, another 395 patents relating to memory of various kinds, 373 patents for semiconductor manufacturing, and 301 for solid state devices.
The number of utility patents granted by the USPTO was truly staggering last year: 253,155, up 13 percent over 2011’s patent issues, which were up 29 percent over 2010’s levels. Patents are now a defensive shield as well as a weapon, and companies of all shapes and sizes are trying to protect themselves. IFI Claims says that all but nine of the top 50 patent grantees in 2012 had an increase in the number of patents they were issued over 2011, and 32 of those companies had double digit growth. Google had triple digit growth, up 170 percent to 1,151 patents, lifted in part by its acquisition of the Motorola mobile phone business but also helped by its own investments in hardware and software research. Apple, which is fairly new to the Top 50 patent ranking, having only made the list in 2010 for the first time, is patenting up big-time, up 68 percent to 1,136 patents.