For the 22nd year in a row, IBM has produced more US patents than any other company, a success that it attributes, at least in part, to the global diversity of its researchers.
"Nobody has a lock on intellect, skills, and experience. Many countries have different areas of focus. If you have a different education system, you can come up with different views of the same phenomenon," said Bernie Meyerson, IBM chief innovation officer.
For 2014, IBM garnered 7,534 patents, more than any other company, according to the latest annual tally of U.S. patent awardees compiled by analysis firm IFI CLAIMS Patent Services. IBM inventors who reside outside the U.S. contributed to more than 34 percent of this year's crop of the company's patents, according to IBM.
Such geographic-based diversity of research is vital to the company's well-being, Meyerson said.
"The end goal is to provide more value and differentiation for our clients. To accomplish this, we need an incredible diversity of skills and backgrounds. It also results in a high diversity of patents," Meyerson said.
For instance, IBM researchers in Tokyo, Israel and the US collaborated in a new security technique for scanning Web applications to find previously undiscovered vulnerabilities, which resulted in U.S. Patent No. 8,635,602, awarded last year.
IBM maintains 12 research labs on six different continents. The two newest facilities are located in São Paulo, Brazil and Nairobi, Kenya.
Of course, IBM has not always been praised for pursuing geographic-based workforce diversity. The company has been criticized for moving U.S. jobs, at least the more rank-and-file positions, to other parts of the world.
Following IBM in this year's IFI CLAIMS 2014 U.S. patent ranking is Samsung, which had 4952 patents for the year. Microsoft also stocked up its portfolio last year, with 2829 patents, as did Google (2566) and Qualcomm (2590).
Overall, consumer electronics firms dominated the top 10 of patent holders, with Canon (4055 patents in 2014), Sony (3224), Toshiba (2608), LG Electronics (2122), and Panasonic (2095).
As in years past, IBM focused on developing patented technologies in areas where it sees information technology heading. Of late it has done much work in the realm of cloud computing, analytics, mobile, social networking and security.
IBM U.S. Patent No. 8,661,132, awarded last year, describes a technique to enable service virtualization in the cloud. U.S. Patent No. 8,832,847, also issued to IBM in 2014, details a novel way to share data across multiple mobile applications.
Although IBM generates some revenue from patents, the primary motivator for amassing so much intellectual property is "foundational," Meyerson explained. It allows the company to capitalize on new fields of technology, such as cloud computing, without worrying about paying excessive patent license fees to other companies.
Meyerson said IBM does worry about so-called patent trolls, which collect patents in hot technology areas simply to charge inordinate amounts for other companies to use.
Amassing patents "protects us against others," Meyerson said.
A large patent portfolio also allows IBM to maintain low licensing costs by trading patent rights with other IT heavyweights. IBM licenses most of its patents out to other companies on what terms it calls RAND (reasonable and non discriminatory), Meyerson said. In 2005, IBM made available 500 patents that could be used to protect Linux and other open source software.
With the 2014 ranking, IBM is the first company to accrue more than 7000 patents in a single year, according to IBM. To date, IBM has been awarded more than 81,500 U.S. patents.