Published online 15 February 2010 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2010.72

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China's patents push

Asia defies patent-filing downturn as global economy slips.

Electronics innovation was key to China's 30% surge in international patent applications last year.Eliza Snow/iStockphoto

International patent applications in 2009 dropped for the first time on the back of a double-digit fall in US applications - but China, with a 30% surge, claimed a bigger piece of the shrunken pie. Yet observers say the quality of Chinese applications has not kept pace with their volume, and the country still has far to go before it can establish itself as a dominant player in intellectual property.

Applications filed under the Patent Cooperation Treaty (PCT), an international pact signed into law in 1970, fell by 4.5% in 2009. Declines were spread across most of the Western world: application numbers for the United States, Germany, Canada and Sweden all fell by more than 11%.

Francis Gurry, director general of the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), which publishes the PCT patents, told a press conference on 8 February that the dip was not surprising given the economic conditions. But Gurry called China's 29.7% increase "extraordinary"; it propelled the country ahead of France and into fifth place overall. Although the United States still holds the top spot with 45,790 applications, increases for China, second-ranked Japan and fourth-ranked South Korea indicate a shift towards Asia (see chart). "This confirms a trend we have seen over the last five years in particular, but it continues despite the economic crisis," says Gurry.

Chart showing patent filings over timeClick for a larger version of this imageWIPO

China's dramatic rise is partly the result of greater investment in research and development (R&D) by the government over the past decade, and partly due to specific incentives at academic institutions that encourage patent filing, says Lan Xue, a science-policy specialist at Tsinghua University in Beijing. The increase parallels signs of China's rise in research, seen in the growth in its academic publications (see Nature 461, 703; 2009).

Koichi Sumikura, an intellectual-property expert at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo, says that much of the boom probably comes from university spin-off companies in dozens of university science parks that China has established. Only two Chinese companies are in WIPO's top 100, the telecommunications giants Huawei Technologies and ZTE Corporation, and they account for only 16% of the country's rise, indicating that most of the applicants are smaller players.

"At some point, the trend will plateau," says Xue. Sumikura feels that China might pass South Korea next year, but it probably won't catch third-ranked Germany for a decade at least.

Value added?

Although China is ramping up its patent applications, their value is questionable. "Anyone can apply for a patent if they have money. What's important is whether that patent is granted and whether it gets licensed. If one compares the figures, it appears the quality of the discoveries that Chinese institutions are claiming in patent applications is not very high," says Sumikura. In 2008, for example, the US patent office granted Japan nearly thirty times more patents than it granted China.

"My view is that there is still very little cutting-edge stuff," agrees Gerald Chan of the venture-capital investment group Morningside, which operates in China. "I simply do not see the truly innovative science in China that I see from North America and Europe."

"China filing more patents is good for all patent-holders, as China now has more vested interest in respecting IP," notes Chan. Indeed, according to figures from China's state intellectual-property office, litigation related to IP is increasing in the country, and reached around 30,000 cases in 2009.

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Chinese applications came largely in electronics and telecommunications, biomedical and veterinary technology, and chemistry. Kevin Rivette, a managing partner at 3LP Advisors in Palo Alto, California, and former chairman of the US patent office's Patent Public Advisory Committee, says China might have success in producing new materials, where it can make clear claims of novelty, or in solar energy, grid technologies and other fields related to renewable energy, which are less mature.

Even though Chinese companies have dramatically increased their spending on R&D, says Rivette, this hasn't yet been converted into valuable intellectual property, such as international patents. He thinks the country should, in the short term, focus on buying up large amounts of intellectual property to catch up with countries with similar industry-financed expenditure on R&D — following in the footsteps of countries such as South Korea. 

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