The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) issued a record 219,614 patents in 2010, with IBM grossing the highest number of patents followed by Samsung and Microsoft.

A report by IFI Claims cited that USPTO recorded a 31 percent increase in the number of patents it released in 2010 compared to 2009.

IBM continued to dominate the patent domain as it was awarded 5,896 patents, followed by Samsung Electronics with 4,551 patents and Microsoft with 3,094 patents.

Other companies in the top 10 list are Canon with 2,552, Panasonic with 2,482, Toshiba with 2,246, Sony with 2,150, Intel with 1,653, LG Electronics with 1,490 and HP with 1,480.

Apple also broke into the top 50 list with 563 patents.

IBM continued to maintain its hegemony as it held the top slot consecutively for the 18th year.

Market sectors that recorded the most new patent activity included Multiplex communications, solid-state devices (SSD) and transistors, followed by Semiconductors, Data processing and File management and Processing systems.

Also, US firms garnered 50.3 percent of all U.S. utility patents in 2010 with the remaining going to foreign companies.

Darlene Slaughter, general manager of IFI Claims Patent Services ascribed the sudden spurt in patent issuance to the stepped up effort of the USPTO to improve turnaround times and its five-year strategic plan to increase efficiencies and reduce pendency.  The bottom line:  there is still a backlog of patents pending but the number of grants continues to grow even after a period of economic downturn.

The sudden hike in patent issuance could also be because of some high profile patent lawsuits filed in the smartphone industry in 2010, which included cases filed by Motorola, Nokia, Apple, Microsoft, HTC, Google and Oracle.

Also, companies could be filing patents as a pre-emptive measure to protect themselves from companies that collect patents with an intent to sue rather than manufacture. Recently, Microsoft co-founder and billionaire Paul Allen added details to the patent infringement lawsuit filed against Google, Apple, eBay, Facebook, Netflix, AOL, Yahoo!, Office Depot, OfficeMax and Staples in August. The lawsuit followed another high-profile lawsuit by former Microsoft CTO Nathan Myhrvold, who heads a patent collecting company Intellectual Ventures, which recently filed patent lawsuits against nine companies which include names such as McAfee, Symantec, Trend Micro, Hynix and Elpida.

The patent tide has also raised questions about intentions of companies like Microsoft. The Microsoft led consortium CPTN Holdings, which includes members like Apple, EMC and Oracle, acquired 882 patents from Novell as part of the Attachmate acquisition of Novell. The composition of the patents is still ambiguous but the fact that it is backed by big names has made the industry nervous.

In the midst of such upheaval companies are stocking up patents both as a preemptive measure and also to protect their market share.