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HP focuses on patent quality, IBM on quantity

Big Blue leads the planet in patent grants each year, but perhaps it should follow Hewlett-Packard's lead in focusing on the quality of patents sought.

Microsoft may get a lot of grief for its patent strategy, but IBM carries the biggest patent portfolio by far. In fact, Big Blue has acquired more patents than any other company on the planet for the last 16 years running.

This is particularly interesting when you discover, as The Wall Street Journal recently did, that Hewlett-Packard, one of IBM's fiercest competitors, is actually slowing its patent applications. In HP's words, its emphasis now is on patent quality, not quantity:

HP was once trying to compete with IBM as the most prolific patent producer...But after Chief Executive Mark Hurd arrived at HP in 2005, the Palo Alto, Calif., company spent less time and money filing new patents as the CEO strove to make HP more efficient, said Kevin Light, a deputy general counsel and vice president for intellectual property at HP.

HP has been focusing on "the quality of the patents that we seek, as opposed to the quantity," Mr. Light said. As a result, he added, HP is seeking broad patents that relate directly to its main businesses, avoiding the costs of filing patents that may relate to more specific processes....HP seems to be keeping secret certain innovations, especially in its services division, rather than filing patents.

This strategy is a far cry from IBM's position, which has been to seek a wide array of patents on just about everything, some of which have been downright silly, like its patent on, wait for it, patent trolling. Or how about the patent on offshoring?

That said, IBM has also been generous in granting patent protections to open-source projects. I just wish that more companies would follow HP's lead: either limit your patent ambitions or stop seeking them altogether. However, in our world of patent lawsuits, that's probably not going to happen, as companies feel the need to build up a defensive patent portfolio.