Joff Wild

In what will count as among the least surprising news stories of 2012, for the 19th year in succession IBM secured the most patent grants at the USPTO during 2011. And, once again, it was a record number: 6,180 - up 5% on the 2010 total. Just to confirm that the status quo is alive and kicking, Samsung came in second (4,894), just as it has done since I can remember. However, elsewhere in the top 10, there has been some movement. Microsoft, third in 2010, is down in sixth place this time, having seen a decline of over 700 in the awards it received. In 2010, four of the top 10 recipients were based in the US, in 2011 it was just two; now, six are from Japan, one – Samsung – is Korean –while the other is Taiwanese company Hon Hai.

A number of top 50 companies have seen a surge in their grants. Among them are:

• Renesas, +588%

• Qualcomm, +40%

• Research in Motion, +39%

• Telefonaktiebolaget LM Ericsson, +36%

• Toyota, +24%

• Broadcom, +22%

• Apple, +20%

• General Electric, +18%

• GM, +16%

• Brother, +15%

• Canon, +11%

• Toshiba, +11%

All this in a year that the USPTO granted more patents than it had ever done before.

As this blog has written previously, IBM may well have got itself into a position in which it has no choice but to be number one. However, according to IFI Patent Claims, which has put together all these stats, Big Blue cannot take its pre-eminence for granted: “Although in terms of patent grants, IBM is the clear winner, if you look below the surface at published applications it becomes evident that this reign may be threatened in the coming years. For the past two years, Samsung's applications eclipsed those of IBM. In 2010, we saw more than 5,600 published applications from Samsung vs. less than 5,000 for IBM. 2011 also saw a similar result.”

Of course, an application is not an award, but should the day come when IBM did cede top spot to the Korean company, it will be interesting to see how Big Blue spins it. Yesterday, the company put out a press release hailing its achievement. “IBM's commitment to invention and scientific exploration is unmatched in any industry and the results of this dedication to enabling innovation is evidenced in our nearly two decades of U.S. patent leadership … The inventions we patent each year deliver significant value to IBM, our clients and partners and demonstrate a measurable return on our approximately $6 billion annual investment in research and development," Ken King, general manager and vice president of research business development, is quoted as saying.

If you make a song and dance of being number one by numbers, when you are not anymore people are bound to notice. Those who do not know much about patents – ie, most people – may think it is significant. It’s that perception, more than the reality, which could cause Big Blue bother. On that basis, surely quality is what they should be talking about instead.