IBM (NYSE: IBM) won a record number of U.S. patents in 2011, its 19th straight year on top, as some Asian competitors advanced in the rankings at the expense of Microsoft Corp. (Nasdaq: MSFT) and Intel Corp. (Nasdaq: INTC).

IBM, the world’s biggest computer-services provider, gained 6,180 patents last year, researcher IFI Claims Patent Services said in a statement. Samsung Electronics Co. was second, its growth outpacing IBM, and Canon Inc. replaced Microsoft as third. Panasonic Corp. moved up to No. 4 and Toshiba Corp. advanced to fifth spot.

IBMers in Raleigh and Charlotte contributed more than 10 percent of Big Blue’s total with 645. IBM employs some 10,000 people across the state. 

The total made IBM the top producer in North Carolina, IBM said, citing data as reported in the proprietary data.

IBM earned “more than three times as many patents as second place Cree (Nasdaq: CREE), and third place Red Hat (NYSE: RHT), combined and more than 20 times the number of patents received by SAS Institute,” a Big Blue spokesperson noted.

A patent portfolio spanning from computer memory to online shopping provides IBM with licensing revenue and protection against intellectual-property infringement lawsuits. That means IBM is spending less time in courts than competitors, Manny Schecter, IBM’s chief patent counsel, said in an interview before the numbers were released.

“Everyone knows that if they attempt to bring their patent portfolio against us that they will be met with an equal and opposite force — and it will be formidable,” Schecter said.

IBM also uses its patents to affect trends in technology: If it wishes to promote certain standards, it may tell other companies it won’t sue anyone innovating in that area even if its patents are infringed. So far, the strategy has attracted clients for consulting on intellectual property management and requests to testify before Congress, Schecter said.

Asian Surge

Still, IBM’s reign may be threatened in coming years by Asian rivals, IFI said. Samsung’s 8 percent growth in patents outpaced IBM’s 5 percent, and in the number of patent applications Samsung has eclipsed IBM for two years, the researcher said. Patent applications are an indication of future patent grants, IFI said.

“IBM seems to have a successful strategy that keeps them in a very prominent position,” Mike Baycroft, IFI chief executive officer, said in an interview. “It may not last. As the Asians file more and more, especially large companies like Samsung, there is a possibility that they will take over that No. 1 position.”

Samsung, based in Suwon, South Korea, gained 4,894 patents last year, while Canon won 2,821. Microsoft dropped to sixth place in the rankings, while Intel fell to 16th from eighth. There were eight Asian and two U.S. companies in the top 10.

In all, the U.S. issued a record 224,505 patents in 2011, up 2 percent from 2010, Madison, Connecticut-based IFI said.

$6B in R&D Spending at IBM

Patents are part of IBM Chief Executive Officer Virginia “Ginni” Rometty’s strategy as the company seeks to expand in areas such as emerging markets, cloud computing and analytics. Rometty, the first woman at the helm in IBM’s 100-year history, took over from Sam Palmisano Jan. 1 and tries to meet a goal of adding $20 billion in new revenue between 2010 and 2015. Analysts on average estimate IBM will report $107.2 billion in sales for 2011.

The company invests about $6 billion in research and development each year, and makes about $1 billion in licensing revenue, said Chris Andrews, a spokesman. IBM has a 250-person team managing its patents, and it provides training for more than 8,000 inventors. They record about 20,000 breakthroughs annually, and only some are submitted for patents.

IBM rose 0.5 percent to $182.18 at 10:46 a.m. New York time. The stock reached a record in 2011 and advanced 25 percent for the year.

IBM won its first patent for a perforating machine on July 25, 1911. Since then, the company’s inventors have received more than 70,000 patents, 34,000 of which are active, Andrews said. The company patented DRAM cells, which became the standard for computer memory, in 1968. There are also non-computer inventions, like a laser technique that went on to become the foundation for LASIK eye surgery.

More Information

For the top 50 company list from IFI, read here.

For IFI’s summary of its report, read here.

For more about IBM patents, read here.

(Bloomberg contributed to this report)

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