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IBM Awarded Record Number of Patents in 2001

The US Patent office said it awarded International Business Machines a record 3,411 patents in 2001, making it the first company to surpass 3,000 patents in one year.

It was the ninth year in a row that IBM sat atop the rankings, which are tracked by IFI Claims Patent Services, a private research firm based in Delaware.

Jim Brown, a spokesman for IFI Claims, said the results are part of an overall surge in patent activity that has coupled the rise of computers during the past decade.

The IBM patents represent a nearly 20 percent increase over the 2,886 patents it was awarded in 2000, which was also a record for IBM at the time.

The awards were for inventions such as self-healing servers, techniques for simplifying data and queries, new ways to analyze fingerprints, and improving microchip performance. IBM takes in over a billion dollars each year from patent royalties, which is why analysts have dubbed the fees "annuity-like" revenue streams that help to pad the company's profit margins even when other tech sectors are hit by slower growth.

While IBM's research and development facilities have long been hailed for technology breakthroughs, the company has also been moving aggressively in recent years to exploit them commercially.

For example, the company said more than one third of the technologies it patented during 2001 were already being applied to its product and services, such as its "pixie dust" invention, a magnetic coating that helps improve the density of data on hard disks.

"One of the biggest myths of 2001 was that innovation was dying along with the dot.com bust," Nick Donofrio, IBM's senior vice president of technology and manufacturing said in a statement. "The fact is that innovation is thriving in the research and development labs of corporate America and companies around the world, as this year's patent results confirm."

IBM's patent numbers (3,411) are slightly lower than the IBM numbers that IFI Claims Patent Services tracked (3,453). IFI's Brown said that's because IBM counted only patents in which it was a "primary" assignee from the US Patent Office.

"A patent can be created jointly, with another company, for example," Brown said. "We count all assignees as having ownership of the patents."

Brown said patents on software have become increasingly routine in the past few years but have also sparked debate. For example, IBM also received a patent on a software design that lets airline passengers know when a restroom is free, which is similar to the buzzers that let restaurant patrons know their table is available.

Of the over 3,000 patents that IBM received, more than 1,500 were for infrastructure technologies such as software, servers and storage systems. It also said 1,200 of the patents were for component technologies such as microelectronics and storage devices.

Overall, IBM holds more than 37,000 patents worldwide. Japan's NEC Corp. was awarded 1,966 patents in 2001, ranking it in second place behind IBM for the year.