Ah, the patent mess. Nothing gets faboys and haters more worked up than Apple’s inventions (or ‘inventions’, depending on your point of view). This is especially true for the submissions that cover the most obvious of ideas, like the rectangular iPad design Apple successfully asserted against rivals.
According to data from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) and published last Thursday by IFI Claims, Apple has been awarded a total of 1,135 patents in 2012. This ranked the company 21st among all of the observed companies worldwide, a 68 percent increase. In 2011, Apple ranked 39th with 676 patents.
This notable rise probably means Apple’s ‘lifelong skier’ and chief lawyer Bruce Sewell and his team have been submitting patents at a more rapid clip in order to protect Apple’s business. Another take: patent offices around the world could have simply granted more Apple patents in 2012 (not all submissions get greenlit) than in 2011…
The data, highlighted by The New York Times, reveals that the iPhone maker beat Google by a narrow margin as the Internet giant won 1,151 patents in 2012, a 170 percent jump in patents granted, taking 21st place.
“Google and Apple are clearly taking intellectual property very seriously, and playing to win,” said Mike Baycroft, chief executive of IFI, a patent research firm.
You’d be surprised to learn that the Galaxy maker is investing heavily in research and development.
According to the findings, the South Korea-headquartered conglomerate was awarded four times the Apple filings, or an astounding 5,081 patents, enough to secure the #2 spot and second only to IBM.
Of course, Samsung doesn’t just produce gadgets. The company makes an astounding array of products, including television sets, refrigerators, digital cameras and what not – hence the greater number of patent awards.
The top ten patent holders include IBM (6,478 patents), which has been the top patent winner for an incredible 20 years in a row. Canon was #3 (3,174 patents), followed by Sony (3,032 patents) and Panasonic (2,769 patents).
Windows giant Microsoft was sixth with 2,613 patent grants, followed by Toshiba (#7 with 2,447 patents) and Hon Hai Precision Industry, also known as Foxconn, Apple’s favorite contract manufacturer (#8 with 2,013 patents).
General Electric and LG Electronics ranked ninth and tenth with 1,652 and 1,624 patent wins, respectively.
Of course, none of the patent grants are set in stone as other companies are free to challenge them. As it turns out, rivals did attempt to dispute some of Apple’s prized iPhone patents, like the now famous rubber-band scrolling and touch screen heuristics inventions.
In such cases, the USPTO preliminary invalidates a problematic patent until the dispute is resolved. In the fierce battle for smartphone supremacy, patents are (too) often asserted as a weapon to wear down your opponent in exhausting patent litigation that can drag on for years, sometimes even decades, with the threat of a sales ban a looming reminder of the devastating consequences patent-related rulings entail.
The most problematic disputes involve so-called design patents which are less exacting and more prone to ambiguous interpretations than utility patents.
Senior VP of Honda’s American division notes as much (via Benzinga):
Design is really not patentable. How you bend sheet metal… Because it’s square and it has a screen or four doors or two doors or three doors, it’s very difficult to patent design. What you hope to do is get a design that people are attracted to — kind of a moth to a flame.
What’s your take?
Should design be patentable as a unique characteristic of a product?