If Texas Instruments Inc. ekes out a profit this year, it might start out by thanking its lawyers.

Armed with a hefty portfolio of TI patents and a hard-nosed litigating strategy, the company's attorneys have wrung more than $650 million in the last four years out of competitors who sell products that contain the company's inventions. While it may be the most successful, the Dallas concern is only one U.S. technology company among many dragging competitors into court to enforce patents, trademarks, copyrights and trade secrets that collectively represent a firm's brain trust.

The drive to cash in on such "intellectual property" is picking up steam as the country's one-time technology powerhouses find it harder and harder to compete against Asian conglomerates and nimble start-ups at home. The timing is no coincidence.

"Companies sat back and saw their position eroding away in the world marketplaces and looked for some revenue sources," said James Barlage, a long-time Wall Street electronics industry analyst. "And {they} came upon this."

The lawsuits and similar out-of-court conflicts reach all corners of the electronics industry, with some peculiar effects. Alliances are formed as competitors band together against a common foe. Long-forgotten inventors crawl out of the woodwork, volunteering to help an old friend prove another company's patent invalid. And corporate public relations staffs are mobilized, not just to tout their company's position, but to discreetly besmirch an opponent's as well.

The stakes can be huge. A court ruling expected soon in a clash between Apple Computer Inc. and software-publisher Microsoft Corp. could settle who owns the rights to graphic features that make personal computers easier to use and are a key part of the Macintosh computer's mystique. Chipmaker Intel Corp. is fighting to retain rights to technology and trademarks that have afforded it a $1 billion monopoly for certain semiconductors.

Big companies aren't always the aggressors. Last month a federal court jury, finding that Advanced Micro Devices Inc. had copied the chip design belonging to a much smaller San Diego firm, ordered AMD to pay $26 million. Denying any infringement, AMD intends to appeal. But even its executives support the expanding effort to derive larger profits from costly research.

"Intellectual property has become much more valuable than everybody thought it was going to be 20 years ago," said Ben Anixter, an AMD vice president. "You have to protect your intellectual property because you put so much money into it."

What is happening in electronics coincides with an increased concern about intellectual property on many fronts.

This month, a federal judge ordered Eastman Kodak Co. to pay Polaroid Corp. $909 million, the highest patent-infringement award ever. In the past decade, the number of intellectual property suits filed in federal courts has quadrupled, far outpacing the overall growth in litigation. Congress in the same period enacted more than a dozen laws strengthening intellectual property, and U.S. officials are demanding that international trade rules include stronger protections in this area.

All this springs from a belief that rewarding creation fosters further innovation. A patent affords a 17-year exclusive right to exploit an invention or license it, thereby giving the owner an incentive to pour more money into research. At the same time, the invention's details are made public for others to learn from.

But many people are concerned that excessive patenting and licensing fees can deprive the public of low-cost goods, stifle creativity and competition and prompt costly litigation. Critics say that's already happening in the software industry, where a raft of suits challenge the ability of small companies to mimic screen designs popularized by bigger firms. Last week, Lotus Development Corp. won $500,000 from tiny Paperback Software International, which had violated Lotus's copyrights.

Especially within the realm of electrical products, where tens of thousands of patents cover all sorts of arcane technologies and processes, debates over how to balance innovation against imitation date back to the fight waged by Thomas Edison over rights to the light bulb.

Unlike the pharmaceutical industry -- where companies patent formulas that give them 17-year locks on drugs -- America's fast-changing electronics industry has a history of sharing ideas rather than safeguarding them. Traditionally, members of the clubby U.S. semiconductor industry swapped rights to use each other's patents so that invention could continue without fear of litigation. Royalty payments were minuscule.

Now that's starting to change, leading some people to fear that the legal offensive could stifle the very entrepreneurialism that has been America's strength. Excessive royalties "work to the disadvantage of new companies," said California patent attorney Ronald Laurie, who represents a company in discussions with Texas Instruments. "The new companies who don't have patents, those are the ones who will be hurt."

The blitz by TI, a maker of semiconductors and defense electronics, had its roots in the mid 1980s when U.S. suppliers of computer-memory chips came under assault from Japanese firms strong in manufacturing muscle but weak in product design. In their patent inventory, TI officials began to picture a potential source of revenue, as legitimate as the sale of products and services.

"We saw {intellectual property} as a dividing line between those who had contributed to the technology and those who hadn't," said Richard Agnich, the company's general counsel. Protecting inventions had long been stressed at the firm -- TI today holds 3,000-plus active U.S. patents, more than double the number held by Hewlett-Packard Co. of Palo Alto, Calif., which is twice TI's size. Last year, the Dallas concern ranked eighth among all U.S. firms granted patents.

But Agnich might not have expected that his 70-person legal staff would evolve into a profit center capable of generating well over $100 million in revenue a year and, in a real sense, providing the difference in the first nine months of 1990 between a $102 million company-wide loss and a $17 million profit.

The payoffs began in earnest in 1986 when TI shocked the industry with its success at wresting huge, ongoing payments out of one Korean and eight Japanese makers of memory chips. Those agreements expire at the end of this year, and reports of the renewal negotiations suggest that the Dallas firm may be trying to levy royalties of 10 percent, more than triple the industry's typical rates.

Meanwhile, TI wields an even more threatening sword in the form of a patent awarded it in Japan just a year ago for the 1950s invention of the integrated circuit -- fundamental technology that underlies all of today's computer chips.

Digging into their treasure chest, Agnich and his team also retrieved a 13-year-old patented process for encapsulating chips in plastic. Thus was born a legal barrage against five smaller U.S. chip companies, brought in July in federal court and before the International Trade Commission.

Finally, the company has dusted off a collection of patents originally issued for inventions relating to microwave ovens and calculators. TI claims the technologies apply to the operation of personal computers, including how a processor chip interacts with the keyboard and the way problems are automatically diagnosed.

Thirty personal computer manufacturers have gotten warnings from TI that they may owe royalties on these patents. Two Korean and two U.S. firms -- Zenith Data Systems and Dell Computer Corp. -- are battling suits. And Tandy Corp. of Fort Worth, though it signed a licensing agreement and paid $5 million, recently sued, alleging TI coerced it into paying for patents it didn't want.

All told, more than two dozen law firms have been pulled into the personal computer fray.

TI officials see themselves as trend-setters. "I think the time will come when {intellectual property} will be realized as yet another area of competition," Agnich said. "That's not completely true now, but I think we're headed that way."

Sharing the view, analyst Rajiv Chaudhri of the New York investment firm Goldman, Sachs & Co. thinks semiconductor companies could boost their profitability if they could patent whole chips rather than the single manufacturing steps that are protected today. "The fact of the matter is you have a mechanism here where, without getting any help from Washington, the industry can sustain its profitability -- by tightening protection on intellectual property," he said.

But detractors argue TI's legal maneuvers are nothing more than the desperate grasp of a company that can't market competitive goods. "TI from a product point of view doesn't have much to offer anymore," said analyst Barlage. The firm on Friday reported a $7 million loss for the third quarter.

Others warn that TI's toll-collecting strategy could backfire, harming itself and the whole U.S. industry. "They've gone too far in antagonizing all the smaller U.S. companies," said Daniel Klesken, a Prudential-Bache Securities Inc. analyst.

For one thing, TI might lose customers for its chips among American personal computer makers it has sued. For another, Japanese companies whose lists of patents are increasing could return fire by scratching TI off their list of suppliers or asserting their own intellectual property rights. "Texas Instruments is dependent on so many things from Hitachi, Fujitsu and other companies," said Kazuhiko Manda, a spokesman in Tokyo for NEC Corp. "We are very eager to protect our rights."

If Japanese firms begin to demand huge fees, large U.S. firms will be able to bargain hard with their own rich patent portfolios, but small U.S. companies say they may be the ultimate losers in a big boys' game.

"When you take the {potential} demands of the licensors and aggregate them, it's impossible to stay in business," said Jack Menache, general counsel of Integrated Device Technology Inc., a $200 million Silicon Valley company sued by both TI and American Telephone & Telegraph Co. Large firms "monopolize the market through the use of these patent cross-licensing agreements. That's what's wrong."

Consumers lose, too, he said, because monopolies on technologies "push prices up."

Staff correspondent Paul Blustein contributed from Tokyo.