IBM Maintains Patent Lead, But Here Comes Amazon
Intellectual property has become the coin of the realm for technology enterprises. Hence, companies like IBM and high-flying global competitors like Samsung tout their growing patent portfolios as market indicators of unrelenting innovation—and future technology licensing deals.
About this time each year, IBM Corp. (NYSE: IBM) reminds us of its long run as the undisputed champion of U.S. patents. Last year marked the twenty-third consecutive year that IBM has topped the annual list of U.S. patent recipients with 7,355, nearly 2,000 more than its closest competitor, South Korean powerhouse Samsung Electronics (KRX: 005930). (Samsung's display unit ranked 12th on the 2015 list with 1,838 U.S. patents.)
A patent ranking service also noted that new players are emerging in the race to control intellectual property, including upstarts like Amazon.com's (NASDAQ: AMZN) technology arm.
While the breadth of its patent portfolio is impressive, it is IBM's continuing emphasis on research and development that provides a window into where the company is headed as it looks for new markets and new revenue streams. The latter has proven hard to come by in recent years as IBM invests heavily in acquisitions while pouring cash into research into emerging areas like cognitive computing and its cloud platform.
IBM reported on Wednesday (Jan. 13) it received more than 2,000 U.S. patents in 2015 in technology areas related to cognitive computing and its cloud technologies.
The top ten patent assignees in 2015 also included Google Inc. (NASDAQ: GOOG), Intel Corp. (NASDAQ: INTC) and Microsoft's (NASDAQ: MSFT) technology licensing arm. Other notable enterprise technology vendors included Hewlett Packard's development arm ranked 22nd last year with 1,304 patents, Amazon Technologies Inc. at No. 26 (1,136 patents) and Cisco Systems' technology arm at No. 36 (960 patents).
Among the biggest gainers were Google (up three places from No. 8 in 2014) and Intel climbing back into the top ten. Leading the list of up-and-comers, however, was Amazon Technologies, which according to a patent tracking service moved up 24 spots to No. 26 in the 2015 rankings.
IFI Claims Patent Services compiled the annual U.S. rankings based on patent filings with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.
The rankings also reflect a new corporate strategy of parking patent portfolios in separate holding companies. For example, IFI said most of Microsoft's 2015 patents were granted to its technology licensing entity, Microsoft Technology Licensing LLC, while only 465 were assigned to Microsoft Corp. Google flipped that formula, assigning most of its U.S. patents to Google Inc. while only 360 patents were granted to the Google Technology Holdings unit.
"Rather than keeping all corporate patents under a single registration, some companies are choosing to spread their portfolios across multiple entities," noted IFI senior analyst Larry Cady. "In 2016 this trend will not doubt continue."
The U.S. patent office uses a patent classification system to parse what it calls "utility grants" of intellectual property rights. In 2015, the category "Computers—Electrical Digital Data Processing" was the overwhelming leader with 43,652 grants, according to IFI. Telecommunications ("Transmission of Digital Information") was a distant second at 28,117 utility grants followed by semiconductors (25,409).