Joff Wild

IBM has just issued a press release announcing that it has become the first company ever to receive over 4,000 US patents in a calendar year. This comes on the back of data produced by IFI Patent Intelligence showing that Big Blue was granted 4,186 patents in 2008 by the USPTO, nearly 700 more than Samsung which received 3,515. The other companies making the top 10 are Canon (2,114), Microsoft (2,030), Intel (1,776), Matsushita (1,745), Toshiba (1,609), Fujitsu (1,494), Sony (1,485) and Hewlett Packard (1,424).

In the same press release, the company announces that it “plans to increase by 50% - to more than 3,000 - the number of technical inventions it publishes annually instead of seeking patent protection”. What’s more: “IBM also will contribute the advanced statistical and analytical capabilities of IBM Research … to a collaborative project that is developing an empirical measure of patent quality.”

With regard to the latter, John E Kelly III, IBM senior vice president and director of IBM Research, states: “Our goal is helping stimulate innovation as public investments in large infrastructure projects are being planned to boost global economies. We also anticipate that adding additional transparency to the patent system will help tackle the continuing patent quality crisis, which is impeding inventors, entrepreneurs and companies of all sizes.”

The idea of a “continuing patent quality crisis” is a new one on me. My understanding is that the real crisis is not so much about quality - although that is certainly an issue - but about the patent backlog. In other words, the number of patent applications still out there waiting to be examined and the uncertainty that this creates. Of course, there are complaints from some people that quality standards at, say, the USPTO have decreased - although I have never seen any proof of this, I have only heard people say it is so. Others have expressed concerns that the growing international backlog could well have an effect on patent quality as we move forward, with patent offices and examiners under increasing pressure to handle more applications, meaning they have less time to deal with each one. But, again, I have never seen any proof that this is actually happening now.

Of course, focusing on patent quality is absolutely vital and finding an objective definition of what it means is certainly important. If IBM can help this happen, then that is to be welcomed. However, I can’t help feeling that talking about quality as opposed to pendency also lets companies such as IBM off the hook slightly. If pendency and quality are linked – and I don’t think that I am the only one to believe they probably are – you have to ask why patent office workloads and pendency times are going up. Is it, in fact, because companies such as IBM are submitting so many applications in the first place? Could it be that if Big Blue and many other large organisations were more rigorous about what to seek protection for and did not submit so many applications in the first place, the backlog would not be as large as it is, examiners would have more time to do their work and quality standards would not be coming under so much scrutiny?