Love them or hate them, patents go hand-in-hand with measuring how U.S. innovation stacks up against the rest of the world. A new report shows U.S. companies, universities and government agencies holding most of the top patent rankings, with familiar names such as Google, Microsoft, the U.S. Navy and Harvard University earning top spots.
Patents represent the main way for lone inventors and huge companies alike to obtain exclusive, legal rights for their ideas. The patent system also provides an imperfect, but useful way of gauging the innovation that could produce new technologies and consumer products. The " Patent Power " list for 2012 published by IEEE Spectrum looks at the top innovators, ranking patent portfolios based on both quality and quantity.
That means that a company with relatively few patents, such as Apple, can still rank number three in the electronics category, alongside companies with far more patents. Apple topped the same category last year, but fell slightly in the rankings this time, behind Canon (Japan) and Hon Hai Precision Industry Co. (Taiwan's Foxconn) this year.
How the U.S. stacked up
Despite China leading the world in number of patent filings, U.S. companies did very well compared to foreign competitors in many of the "Patent Power" categories. Microsoft led the pack of U.S. companies that thoroughly dominated the computer software category's top 10, and Google topped the communication/internet services category.
Other U.S. corporations on top of their categories include DuPont (chemicals), General Electric (conglomerates), Qualcomm (communication/internet equipment), Boeing (aerospace and defense), IBM (computer systems) and Abbott Laboratories (biotech and pharmaceuticals).
However, in other patent categories, the U.S. faced stiffer competition from leading foreign companies such as Japan's Toyota (automotive and parts) and South Korea's Samsung (semiconductor manufacturing). In the electronics category, Apple and Xerox represented the only two U.S. companies among the top 10.
The U.S. did well outside the corporate world, with U.S. universities seizing 19 of the 20 top patent rankings for the universities/education/training category. The lone foreign exception was China's Tsinghua University, at the 15th spot.
Even U.S. government agencies fared well compared to their foreign counterparts. The U.S. Navy, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and NASA claimed the top three patent rankings for the government agencies category. [ 5 NASA Inventions That Changed Our Lives ]
Comparing the patent rankings among organizations from different countries can prove tricky. Not all patents are created equal since some countries issue more patents than others, with less stringent requirements. For instance, Japan issues a large number of patents for what the U.S. system would consider relatively trivial inventions.
1790 Analytics, the research firm behind the IEEE Spectrum " Patent Power " rankings, looked at four factors when weighing the patent portfolios. Such factors included how quickly an organization obtained more patents, as well as how frequently other patents cited the organization's patents.
A third factor looked at whether or not an organization's patents became the foundation for a wide variety of technologies. Lastly, the fourth factor emphasized originality. The rankings defined original inventions as those that built upon a variety of technologies, in contrast to patents that mainly cited patents of similar technologies and provided only slight improvements.
Such patent rankings provide a useful glimpse of possible innovation activity among different organizations and countries. Yet even the best patent-ranking system can't tell the full story of innovation or how well an organization (or country) is doing. For instance, Blackberry maker RIM still ranks third in the communication/internet services category despite losing huge amounts of market share for its mobile devices.