IBM racked up more US patents than any other company for the 20th straight year, helped by increasing contributions from its researchers in other countries.
IBM's 6478 patents in 2012 mark a record for the company, research firm IFI Claims Patent Services said. South Korea's Samsung and Tokyo-based Canon ranked second and third. Google took a spot in the top 50 for the first time, with 15 more patents than Apple.
About 30 per cent of IBM's patents were produced by inventors outside the US, up from 22 per cent in 2010. Research centres in Germany, Japan, Canada, the UK and Israel were especially productive, the New York-based company said. The percentage of its patents coming from overseas is expected to continue growing as newer labs in Brazil and Kenya ramp up, said Manny Schecter, IBM's chief patent counsel.
"Intellectual property flows from where markets are flourishing," he said. "You'll see upticks in the amount of technology and intellectual property which we generate outside the US"
IBM's flow of patents lets the computer-services giant produce about $US1 billion a year in licencing revenue. The intellectual property also gives it the freedom to move into new businesses with less risk of being sued over technology.
Still, some other technology companies get much higher royalty revenue from a smaller number of patents. Qualcomm, a designer of mobile-phone chips, made $US6.33 billion in technology licencing in the most recent fiscal year — even though it's not in the top 10 of IFI's list.
Apple, whose innovations helped revolutionise computing and mobile phones, also isn't one of the biggest recipients of US patents. The maker of the iPhone and iPad spends about half as much as IBM on research and development.
Even so, Apple did make gains in this year's list, jumping to No. 22 from 39th place. Google, Apple's biggest rival in smartphone software, rose to 21st place. Both companies are embroiled in lawsuits over intellectual property — along with other mobile-phone makers such as Samsung — giving them more incentive to increase their store of patents.
Companies are applying for more US patents in general, Mike Baycroft, chief executive of Madison, Connecticut-based IFI, said. This year, the US Patent and Trademark Office issued a total of 253,155 patents — a record.
IBM, which has more than 430,000 employees worldwide, invests about $US6 billion in R&D each year. With more than 67,000 patents since 1993, about half of which are active, it is easier for the company to avoid courtrooms, Schecter has said. Eight thousand inventors in 46 states and 35 countries contributed to last year's patents.
The latest crop of patents underscores the kinds of markets IBM is trying to enter. In computer security, the company has a patent for blocking attacks from an intruder to a network. In the realm of IBM's Smarter Planet initiative, the company was granted one patent for predicting traffic patterns using GPS in vehicles and another for remotely monitoring and adjusting power usage across an electricity grid.
The patents also included a technique for providing precise answers to natural-language questions. This is the technology that IBM uses for Watson, the computer that beat humans on the Jeopardy! quiz show and is now being applied to health care and finance.
"Our future intellectual property strategy is a reflection of our business strategy," Schecter said. "We like being the leader and will continue to be very aggressive."
1. IBM 6478 patents granted
2. Samsung 5081 patents granted
3. Canon 3174 patents granted
4. Sony 3032 patents granted
5. Panasonic 2769 patents granted
6. Microsoft 2613 patents granted
7. Toshiba 2447 patents granted
8. Hon Hai Precision 2013 patents granted
9. General Electric 1652 patents granted
10. LG 1624 patents granted
11. Fujitsu 1535 patents granted
12. Seiko Epson 1461 patents granted
13. Hitachi 1436 patents granted
14. Ricoh 1410 patents granted
15. Hewlett-Packard Development 1394 patents granted
16. GM Global Technology Operations 1377 patents granted
17. Qualcomm 1292 patents granted
18. Intel 1290 patents granted
19. Toyota Jidosha 1285 patents granted
20. Broadcom 1157 patents granted
21. Google 1151 patents granted
22. Apple 1136 patents granted
23. Honda 1132 patents granted
24. Sharp 1118 patents granted
25. Xerox 1050 patents granted
26. Renesas 1039 patents granted
27. Fujifilm 1033 patents granted
28. Brother Kogyo 1012 patents granted
29. Research In Motion 986 patents granted
30. Siemens 977 patents granted
31. Cisco Technology 951 patents granted
32. Micron Technology 913 patents granted
33. AT&T Intellectual Property 886 patents granted
34. Semiconductor Energy Laboratory 861 patents granted
35. Telefonaktiebolaget L M Ericsson 843 patents granted
36. Koninklijke Philips Electronics 830 patents granted
37. Texas Instruments 829 patents granted
38. NEC 823 patents granted
39. Honeywell International 815 patents granted
40. Hong Fu Jin Precision Industry (Shenzhen) 782 patents granted
41. Denso 765 patents granted
42. Bosch, Robert 748 patents granted
43. SK Hynix 747 patents granted
44. Mitsubishi Denki 696 patents granted
45. Fuji Xerox 686 patents granted
46. Boeing 673 patents granted
47. Electronics and Telecommunications Research Institute 664 patents granted
48. Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing 650 patents granted
49. Alcatel-Lucent 636 patents granted
50. LG Display 626 patents granted
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