The Red Lines Page

January 15, 2010

Patently obvious

Filed under: Articles,Grumbling,IBM,press — Peter A @ 9:25 pm

Last year, IBM published one of my inventions and another where I was a co-inventor. I was quite pleased, even though they were published, not patented. Then I saw a churlish article in The Register about IBM’s patents — prompting this grumbly personal blog response.

In 2009, the US Patent and Trademarks Office granted IBM more patents than any other company in the world. This was the 17th straight year  that’s happened, though it didn’t stop The Register‘s Gavin Clarke reporting this as “each year for nearly a decade”. (The IBM press release makes this obvious to most of… er… the press.)

Mind you, some of The Register’s other calculations were inaccurate too. And I think they missed a more interesting analysis of  the figures that they were handed on a plate by the various source documents.

For example, The Register claims that a company called Hon Hai Precision grew fastest on USPTO patent awards, but then refers to a table of data that shows Hon Hai was up 39% year-to-year whereas Microsoft was up 43%.

When Gavin’s article was first published earlier this week, it also asserted: “the number of patents granted to Microsoft  almost doubled, growing 43 per cent over 2008 to hit 2,903.” Wouldn’t “almost doubled” be “almost 100%”? And even doubling their impressive 2008 haul would still have kept Microsoft in second place to IBM in 2009. [Subsequently, this calculation gaffe has been quietly removed from the article.]

On trends, the article says: “if IBM and Microsoft continue at the same pace, Microsoft should slide into the number-two spot behind IBM. Then it’s just a matter of time and filings before Microsoft deposes IBM at the top.”  It fails to make a connection with another observation in the article that “the size of portfolio is the currency that you use to trade to another company”.

So how many years on current trends will it be before Microsoft amasses the same amount of total patent “currency” as IBM, Samsung, Canon, Sony or others? Especially as some new patents derive from that existing  intellectual property, and those other companies have been amassing thousands every year for many years… in IBM’s case, for decades. Maybe that’s why in 2003 Microsoft hired Marshall Phelps, the former IBMer who Newsweek said turned IBM’s patent portfolio into a $2 billion business.

In addition, Gavin snorts: “There you have it fanbois: Those who think IBM walks on water because of the patents and IP its generously given to Linux and open-source, the mask as finally slipped. Patents to IBM are a currency it uses to get what it wants.”

But why can’t companies — IBM or otherwise — do different things for different kinds of patents? And if the article’s questioning IBM’s accumulation of intellectual “currency”, perhaps it could have admitted something else made plain in the press release: IBM also had nearly 4,000 additional technical inventions in 2009, but published them directly instead of seeking patent protection, thereby making the inventions freely available to others in a public database of prior art. Including mine. Fly, my pretties, fly!

Companies like IBM, Samsung, Canon, Sony and (increasingly) Microsoft have a big portfolio of existing patents on which they can develop new intellectual property; and IBM also freely publishes thousands of new technical inventions that others can build on.  There you have it, fanbois.

I suppose  journalists prefer to write a story about “the Beast of Redmond breathing down everyone’s necks” or “Big Blue’s mask finally slips after nearly a decade”. (Or is it 17 years? Let me check that press release again.)   And that’s easier to do if you get the basic maths wrong, selectively quote the data, and if you don’t bother with much real analysis of the underlying trends. That much is patently obvious.

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1 Comment »

  1. It would be interesting to examine the figures of patents per employee per year.

    Comment by Ben Walsh — February 9, 2010 @ 6:22 pm | Reply


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