From ways of saving energy in cloud computing to making semiconductors more flexible to enabling supercomputer “Watson” answer questions, IBM (NYSE: IBM) led the way in patented inventions in 2012.


Inventors at IBM helped the technology giant win 6,478 patents in 2012 – the most in the U.S. for the 20th consecutive year and a record total, Big Blue announced Thursday.

“We are proud of this new benchmark in technological and scientific creativity, which grows out of IBM’s century-long commitment to research and development,” said Ginni Rometty, chairman and chief executive officer of IBM.

“Most concretely, our 2012 patent record and the two decades of leadership it extends are a testament to thousands of brilliant IBM inventors – the living embodiments of our devotion to innovation that matters, for our clients, for our company and for the world.”

IBM says more than 8,000 “inventors” spread across 46 states in the U.S. and 35 countries contributed inventions.

About 30 percent of IBM’s patents were produced by inventors outside the U.S., up from 22 percent in 2010.

Research centers in Germany, Japan, Canada, the U.K. and Israel were especially productive, IBM said.

The percentage of its patents coming from overseas is expected to continue growing as newer labs in Brazil and Kenya ramp up, said Manny Schecter, IBM’s chief patent counsel.

“Intellectual property flows from where markets are flourishing,” he said in an interview. “You’ll see upticks in the amount of technology and intellectual property which we generate outside the U.S.”

IBM’s flow of patents lets the computer-services giant produce about $1 billion a year in licensing revenue. The intellectual property also gives it the freedom to move into new businesses with less risk of being sued over technology.

Qualcomm’s Bounty

Still, some other technology companies get much higher royalty revenue from a smaller number of patents. Qualcomm Inc., a designer of mobile-phone chips, made $6.33 billion in technology licensing in the most recent fiscal year — even though it’s not in the top 10 of IFI’s list.

Apple, whose innovations helped revolutionize computing and mobile phones, also isn’t one of the biggest recipients of U.S. patents. The maker of the iPhone and iPad spends about half as much as IBM on research and development.

Even so, Apple did make gains in this year’s list, jumping to No. 22 from 39th place. Google, Apple’s biggest rival in smartphone software, rose to 21st place. Both companies are embroiled in lawsuits over intellectual property – along with other mobile-phone makers such as Samsung — giving them more incentive to increase their store of patents.

Broader Trend

Companies are applying for more U.S. patents in general, Mike Baycroft, chief executive officer of Madison, Connecticut- based IFI, said in the statement. This year, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office issued a total of 253,155 patents, a record.

IBM, which has more than 430,000 employees worldwide, invests about $6 billion in R&D each year. With more than 67,000 patents since 1993, about half of which are active, it is easier for the company to avoid courtrooms, Schecter has said. Eight thousand inventors in 46 states and 35 countries contributed to last year’s patents.

The latest crop of patents underscores the kinds of markets IBM is trying to enter. In computer security, the company has a patent for blocking attacks from an intruder to a network. In the realm of IBM’s Smarter Planet initiative, the company was granted one patent for predicting traffic patterns using GPS in vehicles and another for remotely monitoring and adjusting power usage across an electricity grid.

The patents also included a technique for providing precise answers to natural-language questions. This is the technology that IBM uses for Watson, the computer that beat humans on the “Jeopardy!” quiz show and is now being applied to health care and finance.

“Our future intellectual property strategy is a reflection of our business strategy,” Schecter said. “We like being the leader and will continue to be very aggressive.”

Over the past 20 years, IBM has been awarded almost 67,000 patents.

Based on data provided by IFI CLAIMS Patent Services, the top 10 corporate patent producers in 2012 were:

1. IBM 6,478
2. Samsung 5,081
3. Canon 3,174
4. Sony 3,032
5. Panasonic 2,769
6. Microsoft 2,613
7.  Toshiba 2,447
8. Hon Hai 2,013
9. General Electric 1,652
10. LG Electronics 1,624

Some patent highlights, as IBM noted:

  • U.S. Patent #8,275,803: System and method for providing answers to questions – This patented invention was implemented in the IBM Watson system and describes a technique that enables a computer to take a question expressed in natural language, understand it in detail, and deliver a precise answer to the question.
  • U.S. Patent #8,200,501: Methods, systems and computer program products for synthesizing medical procedure information in healthcare databases – This invention describes a technique that enables medical professionals to more efficiently access and analyze medical data and records stored in multiple disparate data sources, improving their ability to research, diagnose and treat medical conditions.
  • U.S. Patent #8,341,441: Reducing energy consumption in a cloud computing environment – This patented invention describes a technique that enables more efficient and effective use of cloud computing resources, thereby reducing and minimizing energy consumption.
  • U.S. Patent #8,247,261: Thin substrate fabrication using stress-induced substrate spalling – This patent describes a low-cost method for manufacturing a new class of flexible semiconductor materials that will enable ultra-thin, lightweight and flexible products and can be applied to a wide range of technologies such as biomedical, security, wearable computing and solid-state lighting.
  • U.S. Patent #8,302,173: Providing a user device with a set of access codes – This invention provides a method to validate and retrieve one or several security codes –valid for only a very short period of time to enhance system security– via a mobile network (SMS, for example) and a separately encrypted channel from a secure server, for example, to complete a secure transaction or perform secure login operations via a mobile phone.

 IBM employs some 10,000 people across North Carolina.

[IBM ARCHIVE: Check out a decade of IBM stories as reported in WRAL Tech Wire.]

(Bloomberg contributed to this report.)