IBM: A commitment to innovation for the sake of inventing

Watson-Avatar IBM (NYSE: IBM) recently announced that it received a record number of patents during 2014, obtaining a staggering 7,534 U.S. patents in 2014. This marks the 22nd consecutive year that IBM has topped the annual list of U.S. patent recipients, and there is every reason to believe that the company known for putting its foot on the innovation accelerator will keep on keeping on. During IBM’s 22 years atop the patent list (1993-2014), the company’s inventors have received more than 81,500 U.S. patents.

It is almost staggering to contemplate, but IBM inventors earned an average of more than 20 patents per day during 2014, propelling the company to become the first to surpass more than 7,000 patents in a single year. Indeed, it seems that every year IBM breaks their previous record. In 2013 IBM received 6,809 U.S. patents, which was a new record then. In 2012 IBM received 6,478 patents.

While these totals are impressive enough, the totals are even more eye-popping when you realize that IBM’s 2013 patent total exceeded the combined totals of Amazon, Google, EMC, HP, Intel, Oracle/SUN and Symantec. The company’s 2014 patent count exceeded the combined totals of Accenture, Amazon, Google, HP, Intel and Oracle.

IBM is thoroughly committed to innovation. They do it because IBM has a culture of inventing, a culture of patenting, and over the years the company has invented and re-invented itself over and over.

Over the years I have had the opportunity to speak on the record a number of times with Manny Schecter, who is IBM’s Chief Patent Counsel, and Schecter has penned several articles for us, including the recent article titled The patent system hangs in the balance. In 2011, just before the announcement that IBM would be the top company for the 19th consecutive year, I spoke with Schecter on the record. I asked him, as I almost always do, whether it is a struggle to continue to have senior management at IBM buy into staggering research and development budgets.  I know I sound like a broken record, but when so many companies are cutting research and development spending it is amazing to me that for an entire generation IBM has been unwavering.  Schecter replied then, as he always does, “it is not a struggle… everyone at IBM is on board with being the industry leader.”

IBM spends nearly $6 billion annually on research and development and has now spent an entire generation as the top patenting company in the world. What makes this so unusual is that year after year IBM spends large sums on purely speculative research that is seldom undertaken by for-profit companies. Flowing from IBM’s speculative budget over the years was Watson, the super computer popularized for winning on Jeopardy, and which every science fiction fan should recognize as the first generation Star Trek omnipotent computer. In 2014, IBM inventors received more than 500 patents for inventions that will usher in the era of cognitive systems, including new Watson related cognitive technologies. The below video explains how Watson works.

I have heard it many times before, so I anticipate that there will be those who will attempt to brush off IBM’s impressive patent history. The critics and disbelievers say that patents do not equate to quality of innovation. That is true, but equally true is the fact that patents are an indicator. Only those blinded by an agenda, or perhaps jealousy, would seriously suggest that IBM is not an innovative company. This video (see below) put together by IBM to celebrate its 20th consecutive year at the top of the patenting list explains the philosophy of the company, why patents matters, and some of the more impressive innovations IBM has patented, including Watson and LASIK eye surgery.

As you might expect, IBM is heavily involved in computers, particularly cloud computing and security. In fact, the company’s record-setting 2014 patent output was led by more than 3,000 patents – 40% of its overall annual total – covering a range of cloud computing, analytics, mobile, social and security inventions. Over the past five years, IBM has more than doubled its annual output of patents within these strategic growth areas.

For more information and analysis regarding IBM’s patent portfolio please see Companies We Follow: IBM.

The Top Ten list of 2014 U.S. patent recipients* includes:

  1. IBM                         7,534
  2. Samsung                4,952
  3. Canon                     4,055
  4. Sony                        3,224
  5. Microsoft                2,829
  6. Toshiba                   2,608
  7. Qualcomm             2,590
  8. Google                    2,566
  9. LG Electronics      2,122
  10. Panasonic              2,095

*Data provided by IFI CLAIMS Patent Services

Screen Shot 2015-01-14 at 9.32.12 PM


Warning & Disclaimer: The pages, articles and comments on do not constitute legal advice, nor do they create any attorney-client relationship. The articles published express the personal opinion and views of the author as of the time of publication and should not be attributed to the author’s employer, clients or the sponsors of Read more.

Join the Discussion

2 comments so far.

  • [Avatar for Anon]
    January 18, 2015 08:49 am


    Can you help me understand why you combine the notion of maintenance fees with the notion of “trivialities?”

    Not to take you where you were not going (and please correct me if I am doing so), but you are not advocating for some type of “Flash of Genius” requirement for patenting, are you? I think that such a road ignores the fact that often it is the little steps in innovation that make the greatest leaps – it is often the little steps that can provide the shoulders that others may step onto and take innovation into new frontiers.

    I have seen the analogy in other places and I think a subtle point of the analogy applies here. The analogy is that patents (and the patent system) is here to pave a parking lot as opposed to paving a street. Sure, when one looks at the typical parking lot, one does not think of beauty and one may even think of merely urban blight. At least with streets, there is the sense of purpose – streets are built to lead to somewhere specific.

    But innovation, true innovation, is not built with such prescient design. It cannot be. In truth, we simply do not – and cannot – know what tomorrow brings.

    Instead, and far better for being able to turn in any direction, we have a patent system built for – as the law of 101 states – “or any new and useful improvement thereof.”

    This is not to say that all real trivialities earn patents. We have the laws of 102/103 to deal with that. And it should be noted that the current mess of 101 can be directly linked to the obfuscation of what 102/103 was meant to handle with the desire to deny at the front gate under the law of 101 items that certain ideologies deem merely “trivial.”

    There is a notion of using maintenance fees to ‘prompt’ patent holders to relinquish their ownership and release into the commons the rights earned prior to the full term – but such a notion should NOT be confused with the idea that the rights granted were not granted ‘fairly’ or ‘justly’ under the law to begin with.

  • [Avatar for Benny]
    January 18, 2015 02:30 am

    “The critics and disbelievers say that patents do not equate to quality of innovation…”, Yes, thats true, and it is far more true of smaller companies than of IBM. If you shifted your focus to the smaller players, you would get an idea of the trivialities the USPTO deals with.
    Anyone care to give an estimation IBMs’ total maintenance fees, per annum? (2-3% of the total R&D budget, I’d guess, but a big figure nonetheless).