IBM led on patents in 2017, Facebook broke into top 50 for the first time

Patents may sometimes get a bad rap for how they are abused (and misused) by some companies for commercial gain, but they also remain a marker of how a tech company is progressing with its R&D and pushing ahead on innovation. For one measure of that advance, today, IFI Claims, the patent analytics firm, published its 2017 list of companies with the most U.S. patents assigned for the year.

At the top of the list, IBM has once again come in at number-one, a position it’s held for the past 25 years. It was assigned 9,043 U.S. patents in 2017, one thousand more than it picked up in 2016, and around 3,300 more than its next-closest assignee, Samsung Electronics.

Rounding out the top 10 list, were Canon, Intel Corp, LG Electronics Inc, Qualcomm Inc, Google, Microsoft, Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co (TSMC) and Samsung Display.

IFI Claims notes that Samsung — the world’s biggest mobile phone maker in terms of volumes, and a tech behemoth beyond that — comes within 150 patents of IBM when you put all of their different entities together (in all it has three in the top 1000, which you can see here).

Of course, it’s not the case that patents directly correlate with a company’s fortunes, since tech that is at the cutting edge of innovation that’s winning patents may be far from ever seeing a commercial application.

And in fact, one of the world’s richest companies and most profitable tech company, Apple, didn’t make it into the top 10. Apple stayed level with last year at number 11, winning 2,229 patents. Amazon — another tech juggernaut that has some of the biggest mainstream brand recognition today for its leadership in areas like e-commerce, logistics, cloud services and most recently voice-based AI innovations — jumped up one spot and is now at number 13, with 1,963 patents assigned.

The top 20 follows, with more analysis below that:

In terms of technologies, the IFI Claims’ report also underscores that it is also not always the case that the themes getting the most buzz — or VC funding, or sales — in the wider world are the same as the top technologies that are winning patents, or seeing the most growth.

According to the analysts, the top tech in 2017 was e-cigarettes in terms of patent growth, up 45 percent. It was followed by 3-D printing (GE had the most patents); and then a pair of technologies tied to artificial intelligence, machine learning and autonomous vehicles. IBM filed the most patents in each of these. Other fast-growing areas included aerial drones and food tech.

When it comes to the most popular categories, of patents filed, the general area of “electrical digital data processing” saw the most patents, with 48,935 assigned in all. This category covers both hardware and software and relates to different ways that data can be transferred. IBM also led in this category.

The full top-five list, when you think about it, provides a decent enough sketch of the tech landscape and what are the general areas of interest in terms of products today, too.

The other four tech categories that saw the most patents filed include “transmission of digital information, such as telegraphic communication”; semiconductors; wireless communications and pictorial communications (such as TV but also video and photo apps would be included).