Patents are the lifeblood of the tech industry—and if last year’s numbers are any indication, that sector is performing with vigor.
More than 300,000 utility patents—those are the ones for inventions, rather than designs—were issued by the United States Patent and Trademark Office last year, a record high. Such patents allow companies to put their inventions on lockdown for up to two decades, reaping rewards for significant R&D investments. And there’s another incentive: allowing businesses to stock up their intellectual property warchests and fortify their legal defenses.
“If you’re a bully you’re not going to pick on the big kids,” says Larry Cady, vice president of marketing and senior patent analyst at IFI Claims Patent Services, a firm that maintains a database of patents. “You’re going to pick on the pipsqueaks.”
So which companies are the head honchos? And what ideas are they bent on securing?
Fortune partnered with IFI Claims, which last month ranked the top 50 patent assignees of 2014, in order to examine the major players’ patents—most of which involve computing, hardware and software manufacturing, and mobile technology. A word to the wise: technology patents can be, well, technical. Sometimes, mind-numbingly so. “A lot of patents tend to be very regular,” Cady says. “They’re not fun to read. Once in a while you see something like an Apple Watch, but that’s like finding a needle in a hay stack.” (Apple ranked 11 on IFI Claims’ 2014 list.)
Well, we dug in anyway. Fortune peeked inside the patent caches of last year’s top earners to spot companies’ latest additions. What follows is a list expanding on our 2014 list of the top 10 R&D-spending companies, revealing with finer granularity where and how companies spend their innovation bucks.
Here’s what we found.