Microsoft's patent push is paying off.
The software maker, which stepped up its rush to the patent office five years ago, has reached a milestone, having received its 10,000th U.S. patent earlier this month.
The efforts have propelled Microsoft to the upper echelon among patent filers, though IBM still gets more patents issued than any other company. Last year, Big Blue became the first company to have 4,000 patents issued in a single year.
Microsoft, meanwhile, has risen to the top 5 among patent recipients and for the last two years has topped a key ranking of overall patent portfolio strength.
"Logging the 10,000th patent really is a testament to all of the innovation that has been taking place," Microsoft chief patent counsel Bart Eppenauer said in an interview.
But while its patent filings have been up, the company hasn't managed to stay out of the courtroom. The number of patent lawsuits against the company has actually increased pretty substantially in the last couple of years.
"That increase has come almost entirely from entities that do not produce products," Eppenauer said. Most of the suits have come not from other technology companies, he said, but rather from the firms whose primary business is acquiring and enforcing patents. In those cases, having a large patent arsenal of one's own is of little use, since there are no products that could be used to countersue over.Microsoft's broader patent portfolio has come in handy in other ways, though, particularly as the company has looked to license its technology to other companies and even to do things like its deal with Novell around Linux.
"Patents really are the currency of innovation in our industry," Eppenauer said.
As for the 10,000th patent, it covers a technology used in computers like Microsoft's Surface that link a real-world object with a set of data or images stored on a computer.
Curtis Wong, one of the inventors listed on the patent, said the idea is a simple , but powerful one. Basically the idea is taking an object that might be familiar to a person, say a matchbook from their favorite bar, and having the surface computer associate that object with digital information, say one's favorite songs.
In an odd coincidence, Wong and a colleague were also on Microsoft's 5,000th patent, which covered an approach for linking together a virtual audience of online gaming fans.
Patents have become a bit of a status symbol within the corridors of Microsoft's campus in Redmond, Wash. The company gives workers up to $1,500 each time they apply for a patent as well as a cube with details on the invention. Once a patent is granted, Microsoft workers get a plaque that includes a copy of the first page of the patent application.
Microsoft's patent filings have become so prolific that it now requires a small army to handle the 2,500 to 3,000 U.S. patent applications that the company files each year. It now has more than 100 people in its patent group including more than 40 attorneys, along with analysts, business folks as well as paralegals and support staff. For Wong, though, all the patents have started to become a bit of a distraction, literally.
"The cubes are blocking my window," said Wong, who is listed on about four dozen patent applications.