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Apparently, we are all supposed to be pleased by the news that IBM has been issued more than 8,000 patents in the US, breaking the record for most patents in a year. It’s also a cause for some celebration that there was a record total number of patents issued in 2016 (304,126).
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IBM led the field in patents in the US for the 24th year in a row but, between them, the top ten companies, all technology companies (including the likes of Samsung, Google, Intel and Microsoft), accounted for more than 35,000 patents (11% of all patents issued). Apple was in 11th place with 2,102 patents.
Which demonstrates all too clearly that innovation is alive and well in the IT industry. Or does it?
If you look at it another way, it all depends what those patents have been issued for. Are they for real innovations or are they merely a means of forcing people to pay a tax for incorporating technology that they all would have thought of anyway into their products? Not forgetting their importance as a mean of making lawyers rich when the inevitable court cases arise.
In other words, might we be better advised to be more circumspect about celebrating the sheer number of patents issued as an indicator of innovation? Given the number of law suits that patents can generate and the fear of being sued for potential breach of some very wide-ranging and vaguely defined patents that can act as a drag on innovation, should it be more a case of “patents shmatents”?
Might the industry be better served by a reduction in the number of total patents being issued if it meant they were actually granted for recognisable technology innovations rather than as defensive measures intended to protect companies against their rivals or constrain competing organisations in their own product development?
What if, out of the hundreds of thousands of patents issued every year, only a few hundred turned out to be of any real use? What would that say about the effectiveness of the patent regime?
Right now, nobody seems to care. But, in many instances, the most wide-ranging innovation from the ever rising number of patents being issued is in providing more ways for the lawyers to make money. And that’s one thing you can’t patent against.