Global Patent Filings Continue Rise But May Level Off; Smaller Nations Slipping 05/08/2008 by William New, Intellectual Property Watch Leave a Comment IP-Watch is a non-profit independent news service, and subscribing to our service helps support our goals of bringing more transparency to global IP and innovation policies. To access all of our content, please subscribe now. You also have the opportunity to offer additional support to your subscription, or to donate. By William New Patent filings continue to rise globally, especially in a few nations, as do problems of high-volume application processing and quality assurance. But more attention is needed to bring smaller economies into the patent system, and patenting may slow down with tough economic times, officials at the World Intellectual Property Organization said last week. In the recently issued annual WIPO patent report, it was shown that patent applications worldwide rose nearly 5 percent in 2006 over the previous year, and patents granted shot up by more than 18 percent, to 727,000 patents granted in 2006 (the latest figures available). These represent new property rights, and may have risen dramatically due to improvements in processing efficiency, WIPO Deputy Director General Francis Gurry told a 31 July press briefing. There is a problem of heavy concentration in a few countries, as five nations accounted for 76 percent of all patent filings: Japan, the United States, Korea, Germany and China. And the concentration is increasing, suggesting that smaller economies still may not be finding ways to participate. This will become a priority for WIPO, Gurry said. Meanwhile, the United States Patent and Trademark Office became the world’s “biggest patent office,” the one with the most filings, for the first time since 1963, as the US caught back up with Japan after several decades. In 2006, the United States received 425,966 patent applications, followed by Japan with 408,674 (a slight decrease). China’s patent office received 210,501 applications, Korea’s 166,189, and the European Patent Office (EPO) 135,231. European countries are increasingly moving to filing through the EPO rather than their national offices. The biggest percent increases in total number of patent applications filed worldwide were by applicants from China at 32.1 percent, Korea 6.6 percent and the United States 6.7 percent. In 2007, patent filings via the PCT are estimated to be 158,400, a nearly 6 percent increase over 2006. Woozy Economies Could Affect Patenting A graph in the report on trends in total patent grants showed that the number of grants drops when the economy dips, such as in 1991 and 2002, which may be happening again in 2008 or 2009. But whether the long upward trend in patenting will continue in light of the struggling global economy is unclear. “We don’t know yet,” said Gurry, who noted that a patent is taken out at the end of research. Looking at decreases in 1991 and 2002, William Meredith of WIPO said, “We would expect the same thing to happen with the current crisis.” “We would expect filings to go down.” A separate statistic showed that patents rarely remain in force for the full 20 years of monopoly they are granted. WIPO officials suggested this might be because a fee must be paid to maintain a patent, which the owner may choose not to do if it is not rendering a sufficient commercial return. Approximately 6.1 million patents were in force in 2006, including 1.8 million in force in the United States (though the majority of patents in force are owned by applicants from Japan). Utility Models for Development A renewed approach to increasing involvement in the IP system among least developed nations is to encourage uptake of utility models. These are a special way of recognising property rights over a small advance to an existing technology for a shorter time than patents and which are easier to obtain. Utilities models tend to move in an inverse way to the rise in patenting in a country, Gurry said. An example he gave was a modification to a plough, an existing technology. WIPO is looking at utility models as a way to address the problem of concentration in patenting, in order to encourage greater participation in the IP system. Utility models could be a way for developing countries to come into the system, Gurry said. Overall, more patents are being made international through filings under the WIPO Patent Cooperation Treaty (PCT), which allows an application in one member country to apply in others. Filings by non-residents rose from 35.7 percent to 43.6 percent, but originate mainly from a few nations, WIPO said. In terms of residents owning patents, Japan is the leader, with 1.6 million, followed by the United States with 1.2 million. A key trend is that more patents are being filed in countries other than the company or individual’s own. More than 90 percent of filings in the patent offices of Hong Kong, Israel, Mexico and Singapore were from non-residents. Patent filings are found to correlate with research and development spending. Resident patent filings per R&D expenditure were led by Korea, Russia, Japan, China and New Zealand. Sectors that saw most patenting in 2005 (most recent year) were computer technology, telecommunications, and electrical machinery. Pharmaceuticals increased slightly but biotechnology patenting decreased by 2.7 percent. Back to Backlog, and Questions of Quality Patent quality is of increasing concerns to stakeholders. Gurry said WIPO lacks a measure for assessing the quality of a patent, making it difficult to generate statistics on it. He said one measure of a patent’s quality might be how many times it has been overturned in courts. Another question might be about the quality of the process used. And a third could be the “amount of noise created around the world” after the granting, especially if the patent is seen as covering something that is too basic. Meanwhile, backlog is a serious problem. The backlog of patent applications in the United States alone was more than one million in 2006, and has gone up since then, said Gurry. It would take 2.5 years to process that amount of applications even if not another application was filed, he said. “There is a very significant problem in the excess of demand with the capacity of patent offices to process that demand,” Gurry said. “It is something the international patent community needs to address.” Discussions are taking place internationally on how there might be more efficient work-sharing, so that each office does not need to repeat all of the work done by another office. “I think we should see some movement in this area in the next year or two,” he said. The Patent Cooperation Treaty was created in part to address the problem, but countries see a need to redo applications, he said. WIPO also is tackling linguistic differences, which are rising with the increasing variation in leading patent filers. Translating an application and documents into the local language can be very difficult and expensive for smaller companies. Ways to address it under consideration include the possibility of reworking the PCT, harmonisation of law and practices in different countries, which has been blocked in negotiations, and the patent prosecution highway, which is developed bilaterally and allows an application processed in one country to be expedited in the other. “I think it’s time we had a solution,” Gurry said. William New may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. "Global Patent Filings Continue Rise But May Level Off; Smaller Nations Slipping" by Intellectual Property Watch is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.