Microsoft again earned the most software patents in 2009, the third time in three years for the Redmond giant, according to the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE).
With 2,913 patents granted last year, Microsoft ran away with the majority of software patents. The next closest in the software category was SAP with 388.
"This year again, Microsoft's portfolio is rated the strongest in the software industry ... the third straight year that Microsoft has topped the IEEE Spectrum Patent Scorecard," Bart Eppenauer, the company's chief patent counsel, said in a post to the Microsoft On the Issues blog late Thursday afternoon.
Although IBM is listed in a different category on the IEEE lists -- under "computer systems" instead of "computer software" -- Big Blue still beat out Microsoft for the number of new patents granted overall last year, with 4,916.
Like many large technology firms, Microsoft set out years ago to secure as many patents as it could for its catalog. Companies use such patents for several purposes, including as protection against competitors as well as so-called "patent trolls" -- companies that buy up patents and then sue firms they feel are infringing them.
Perhaps ironically, the more patents Microsoft gains, the more others have seemed to sue the company for infringement. For instance, earlier this week, Microsoft lost a $105.75 million patent suit brought by holding company VirnetX.
In that case, Microsoft will ask that the trial judge reconsider his ruling as well as petition to have VirnetX's patents declared invalid.
Microsoft is also currently awaiting a decision on its request to an appeals court to rehear "en banc" a patent suit appeal it lost last year to another small firm, called i4i.
Patents for leverage
Additionally, of course, firms like Microsoft use their patent portfolios as leverage against competitors as well as enticements for potential partners. For example, the company recently entered into a patent cross-licensing deal with e-tailer Amazon, which has the popular Kindle e-reader.
There is also the possibility for one firm to use its patents to intimidate other companies and organizations. Take, for instance, Microsoft's claims three years ago that Linux violates some 235 of its patents and that Linux vendors should pay up for the infringement.
The company has never publicly disclosed what those patents are but Microsoft has signed a slew of licensing agreements in recent years with firms that have products built on Linux. In one recent example, Japanese hardware company I-O Data Device, which uses Linux in its products, agreed to license patents from Microsoft.
One major source of patents for Microsoft -- besides buying companies for their intellectual property -- is the company's Microsoft Research organization. MSR, as it's called, annually files for a pile of patents based on its researchers' work.
Those range from methods to enable software to time out, to Microsoft's Surface tabletop computer.