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IBM wins patent glory, but seeks reform

Big Blue was awarded the most U.S. patents in 2006, but it still wants patent system tweaks.

It would be news if IBM didn't get the most U.S. patents in 2006.

So it's no surprise that the company did just that for the 14th consecutive year. But it's still worth noting the number of patents Big Blue was awarded--3,651--especially in light of various efforts to reform what some say is a flawed system to balance intellectual property and innovation. Not to mention IBM's continued willingness to launch patent infringement lawsuits and the fact that smaller companies eagerly trumpet the award of even a single patent.

IBM plans to tout its patent tally Wednesday. Second place went to Samsung Electronics, with 2,453 patents, followed by Canon with 2,378, Matsushita Electronics with 2,273, Hewlett-Packard with 2,113, Intel with 1,962, and Sony with 1,810.

Patents can be a lucrative source of revenue for technology companies that license their intellectual property to others. And patents can give strategic leverage to competitive negotiations, as in recent deals that Novell and Sun Microsystems signed with rival Microsoft.

But patents can be a pain, too. Amazon.com and IBM are locked in a legal battle about e-commerce patents. A patent infringement suit costs $3 million to defend, intellectual property lawyers estimate.

Then there's the open-source problem. The collaborative programming community, of which IBM is a significant part, shares technology freely with licensing terms that often are at odds with corporate patent licensing arrangements. IBM has made various attempts to put the open-source realm at ease, for example, by sharing some patents with open-source projects and pledging to avoid some patent lawsuits.

The latest modest-scale patent reform plan IBM is involved in is an online meeting called the Inventors' Forum where smaller companies or individual inventors, such as Super Soaker patent holder Lonnie Johnson, can have their say. The company plans to announce the forum Wednesday.