Microsoft is the number one company when it comes to software patents, according to an IEEE report.
In fact, Microsoft is so far ahead of the rest, it’s ridiculous. Microsoft had 2,918 patents granted in 2009. Oracle had the second most with 338. Microsoft is also far ahead of Apple, which has only 294 patents.
This is the third year in a row that Microsoft ranked first in the in the “computer systems” category.
Patents are often used as a crude measure of innovation, but they shouldn’t be. Microsoft certainly is not more innovative than Apple — let alone 10 times as innovative, as the patent numbers would suggest.
What the number of a company’s patents really measures is its appetite for legal warfare.
Companies really use patents as weapons, either offensive, or more often defensive. Having a big portfolio of patents is sort of like having more missiles during the Cold War: if you attack me, I’ll fire back with so much you’ll regret you did it.
Jonathan Schwartz, former CEO of SUN, gave account of what this type of corporate warfare looks like from behind-the-scenes. Here’s the relevant bit:
I understand the value of patents – offensively and, more importantly, for defensive purposes. Sun had a treasure trove of some of the internet’s most valuable patents – ranging from search to microelectronics – so no one in the technology industry could come after us without fearing an expensive counter assault. And there’s no defence like an obvious offence.
But for a technology company, going on offence with software patents seems like an act of desperation, relying on the courts instead of the marketplace. See Nokia’s suit against Apple for a parallel example of frivolous litigation – it hasn’t slowed iPhone momentum (I’d argue it accelerated it). So I wonder who will be first to claim Apple’s iPad is stepping on their IP… perhaps those that own the carcass of the tablet computing pioneer Go Corp.? Except that would be AT&T. Hm.
Having watched this movie play out many times, suing a competitor typically makes them more relevant, not less.
Sun was sued numerous times – most big companies are sued almost constantly by entities or actors whose sole focus is suing others. Groups with no business focus other than litigating patent suits are affectionately known as trolls – pure litigation entities. (For good humour, read this, an application to patent the act of trolling. If granted, it would give the patent holder a reciprocal claim against a patent troll.)
The most egregious of such suits was filed against Sun by Kodak (yes, the film photography people).
Egregious, because Kodak had acquired a patent from a defunct computer maker (Wang) for the exclusive purpose of suing Sun over an esoteric technology, Java Remote Method Invocation (“Java RMI” – not exactly the first thing that comes to mind when you hear “Kodak”). Given how immature Kodak’s technology business was (they were just starting out in the digital world), we had little we could respond with – I suppose we could’ve hunted for a Wang-like opportunity to hit at their core, but Kodak was a customer, which certainly complicated things, and the time and expense involved would’ve been prohibitive.
Their case was eventually heard before a jury in Rochester, New York, famous for being home to… the Eastman Kodak company. Lo and behold, the local jury decided Sun should pay Kodak more than a hundred million dollars.