Makers of smartphones and the chips that power them are grabbing patents faster than ever. That suggests that a few major participants in the smartphone patent wars, where more than 20 companies are now doing battle, expect those disputes to continue for at least another year or two. The number of patents granted by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office reached an all-time high last year at 219,614, according to a recently released study. The two biggest gainers? Cellphone chipmaker Qualcomm-which relies on patent-licensing for a big chunk of its profits-and Apple (NSDQ: AAPL), which got almost twice the number of patents in 2010 that it did in 2009. Another handset maker, LG Electronics (SEO: 066570), was also in the top 10.
There are other signs that no one’s backing down in the smartphone wars. Just yesterday, Apple fired off another shot against rival Nokia (NYSE: NOK), filing a lawsuit in a London court claiming that one of Nokia’s user-interface patents is invalid. Nokia responded by saying it’s sure that all 37 of the patents it’s using to sue Apple in various venues are valid. (No, that number is not a typo.)
All of this has some concerned that expensive patent battles over small smartphone features could create a “patent thicket” that will be a drag on innovation in the sector. (See below for Techdirt’s diagram of the smartphone patent thicket.)
Overall, the number of patent grants in 2010 was higher than any other year in history, as a graph on Patently-O, a popular patent law blog, shows. The runner-up is 2006, which saw about 173,000 patents granted. The top recipient of U.S. patents was IBM, which takes great care to make sure its research labs are the perennial top winner of new patents. The top 10 patent grantees were, in order of patents granted : IBM, Samsung (4551), Microsoft (NSDQ: MSFT) (3094), Canon (2552), Panasonic (2482), Toshiba (2246), Sony (NYSE: SNE) (2150), Intel (NSDQ: INTC) (1653), LG Electronics (1490), and Hewlett-Packard (NYSE: HPQ) (1480).
The full list is available at ifi CLAIMS Patent Services, the patent analysis firm that published the study.
Image courtesy Mike Masnick / Techdirt