Joff Wild

Over on the PatentlyO blog Dennis Crouch has done some number crunching and discovered that IBM abandons a very large percentage of patents granted to it within four years. The numbers really are huge. According to the graph Crouch provides, in some years it can get close to 45% - literally thousands. In his commentary Crouch contrasts Big Blue’s strategy with those followed by Apple and Canon, both of which abandon very little or nothing at all. The piece ends with this paragraph:

What’s going on here? Apple and Canon are certainly paying maintenance fees on patents that would be found invalid on reexamination and not-infringed in court. On the other side, IBM could have predicted at the time of issuance that it wouldn’t pay the maintenance fee — so why did it pay the $1,000 issue fee?

With regard to IBM, at least part of the answer to Crouch’s question is surely very clear and can be found in the annual January press releases the company issues (here, here and here, for example) lauding the fact that in the previous year it was once again the recipient of the most US patents grants. I did a Google search on “IBM US record US patent grants 2011” and got 3,610,000 results. That equates to an awful lot of mostly very positive coverage.

In the 2012 release entitled “IBM Breaks U.S. Patent Record; Tops Patent List for 19th Consecutive Year”, Ken King, general manager, Intellectual Property and vice president, Research Business Development, states: "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.” The abandonment figures PatentlyO reveals do not necessarily fully back that statement up.

Many IBM patents obviously do “deliver significant value” to the company, but many others clearly don’t – unless you count the publicity they help to generate. And when it comes to that, as this blog has stated before, Big Blue has got itself into a difficult situation: it now has to be the number one recipient, because the year it does not happen will prove to be a nightmare in terms of coverage. Of course, it’s all ridiculous anyway – patent grants in and of themselves mean very little, it’s what they cover and enable that’s important. Given that there is at least a chance that some time soon, the terrible day may come when the top spot is lost, IBM might be doing itself a lot of favours by starting to emphasise that point a little more.

On another note, the abandonment figures point to an IBM portfolio of long-term US patents (ie, over four years of age) that may not be as big as many people had previously thought. If that is the case, the number of patents that IBM has transferred to Google over recent times looks a little more significant than it might have done otherwise.