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IBM retains patent crown

Big Blue gets the blue ribbon--again--but HP moves up a notch. Japanese companies stay strong. IBM offers 500 patents for open-source use

A day after opening its patent vault to open-source developers, IBM once again topped the list of companies receiving U.S. patents.

In 2004, for the 12th consecutive year, IBM won more patents than any other private sector company, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office announced Tuesday. The tech giant tallied 3,248 patents last year, well ahead of the runner-up in the top 10 list. In 2003, IBM was granted 3,415 patents.

Matsushita and Canon landed in second and third place with 1,934 and 1,805 patents, respectively, while Hewlett-Packard was fourth with 1,775 patents. Other companies in the Top 10 list: Micron Technology (1,760), Samsung (1,604), Intel (1,601), Hitachi (1,514), Toshiba (1,310) and Sony (1,305).

Despite the strong showing by Korean and Japanese companies, the U.S. government saw the list as a measure of good health in the American economic sector. "American innovation and discoveries are the foundation of our technological strength worldwide," Jon Dudas, undersecretary of commerce for intellectual property, said in a statement. "Increasingly, patents have become an essential ingredient of our economic vitality, paving the way for investment in commerce and in research and development, and creating jobs for millions of Americans."

Patents are typically used to safeguard a company's intellectual property--and that reality has been raising anxiety levels for some in the software community, as companies have increasingly sought to capitalize on software patents. On Tuesday, however, IBM headed in the other direction with its decision to give open-source developers access to 500 of its patents without fear of being sued for infringement.

HP, which received 1,759 patents in 2003, inched up from the fifth position to the fourth in 2004. "This achievement validates the strategy established five years ago when we put the word 'Invent' in the company logo and increased our efforts to build a patent portfolio," Steve Fox, the company's deputy general counsel for intellectual property, said in a statement.