Apple and Samsung always win the patent headlines because the two tech giants unceasingly tango over who owns what mobile technology. Despite all the public drama, it's actually IBM (NYSE:IBM) that dominates the U.S. patent office.
According to IFI Claims Patents Services, IBM was awarded 7,534 patents in 2014 -- the only company to ever receive more than 7,000 patents in a single year -- taking the top spot for the 22nd consecutive year. Meanwhile Samsung took the No. 2 spot, and Apple came in at No. 11.
IBM's patent trove has been built in part from its research and development spending, which is approaching highs the company hasn't seen since the early 1990s.
But while all the R&D spending certainly helps in gaining new patents, it doesn't bring in a whole lot in yearly revenue. The company is estimated to bring in about $1 billion in annual patent royalties, compared to its nearly $100 billion in total revenue.
Meanwhile Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT), which came in at No. 5 with patent awards in 2014, earns nearly $2 billion every year just on its mobile patents used in Android devices. ZDNet notes that Microsoft may earn anywhere between $10 and $32 for every Samsung Galaxy S5 sold, and $5 to $16 for other Android phones. For compairson's sake, Microsoft spent more than $11.3 billion in research and development last year compared to IBM's $6.2 billion.
Mobile chipmaker Qualcomm (NASDAQ:QCOM) consistenly brings in some serious revenue from its patent licensing -- more than $30.5 billion over the past five years. The company owns a treasure trove of 3G and 4G patent technology that mobile companies need to connect their mobile devices to the Internet. What's interesting is that Qualcomm has spent less on R&D every year for the past 10 years than IBM has, yet it makes much more from its patents.
That should be something IBM considers in light of the company's falling revenue.
Since 2012, the company's sales have been on a steep decline, partially because companies have moved more toward cloud computing solutions while IBM has been left trying to catch up. CEO Ginni Rometty recently updated the company's business organization and management to make IBM more competitive and focus more on security, analytics, and commerce. But it could take a while for the reorganization to bring any significant changes at the company.
Meanwhile, the Financial Times is reporting (paywall) that IBM is looking to its latest mainframe computer to breath new financial life into the company. Hardware makes up just 11% of IBM's business right now, but FT says that between a quarter and a third of the company's profits stem from mainframes because of the additional software and services sold with them. That should help bring up revenue in the short term, but IBM's long-term plans need more than a harkening back to old revenue streams.
Which brings us back to IBM's patent trove. While the company is busy restructuring and looking for new areas of growth, hopefully IBM will take a page out Qualcomm's notebook and develop patents it can make significant revenue from over the long-term. If not, it would appear that earning the most patents year after year isn't really worth all that much.