On Patent Charts, IBM’s No. 1 Again, Apple’s No. 22

Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg

Jim Hedrick, an advanced organic materials scientist for IBM Research at Almaden, a major IBM research centers.

International Business Machines Corp. for the 20th straight year was granted more U.S. patents than any other company, with 6,478. That’s heart-warming news for IBM. The rest of the list will provide plenty of fodder for discussions of the nation’s place in the world, of the “Is the U.S. falling behind?” variety.

What, though, do the patent rankings mean? One company you don’t see on the top 10 patent list is Apple Inc. Apple does have a fair number of patents. It has been quickly climbing the ranks in recent years, going from No. 46 in 2010 (with 563 patents) to No. 39 in 2011 (676 patents) to No. 22 (1,136 patents) last year. The top 10 chart is below; you can see a top 50 chart here.

Nonetheless, Apple is still not on the top 10 list, and it’s even behind Hewlett-Packard Corp., No. 15 on this year’s list. That likely says more about patents than about Apple. After all of HP’s management mistakes you’re not likely to find many folks who would rather be in HP’s shoes than Apple’s. Patent counts may be a rough gauge of how much attention companies devote to research or research and development; they don’t seem to be that great a gauge of how well that research translates into products.

That’s an irony, since the idea of patent protection was to protect innovators’ position in the market. If you can’t translate your innovation to marketable products, you have no market to protect. You can rise on the patent charts by accumulating patents as a byproduct of building products, or by building products as a byproduct of accumulating patents. The first is the more sustainable plan.

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