China's first place for patents not quite the triumph it seems

Despite its high numbers of filings, the poor quality of applications throws the strength of the country's innovation into question

PUBLISHED : Friday, 04 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 04 January, 2013, 4:01am

Thank you to the reader who drew my attention to reports last month that China has overtaken the United States as the world's biggest filer of patent applications.

According to a study published by the World Intellectual Property Organisation, China's State Intellectual Property Office received 526,412 patent applications in 2011. In contrast, the US Patent and Trademark Office got just 503,582.

What's more, almost 80 per cent of the applications filed in China came from local residents, while half the US filings were from foreigners.

Worldwide, the biggest corporate applicant for international patents was Chinese telecommunications-equipment maker ZTE, with domestic rival Huawei Technologies close behind in third place.

On the face of it, the rapid growth of China's patent filings over recent years (see the first chart) is a glowing testament to the strength of Chinese innovation, and would appear to promise great things for the economy's growth prospects.

Given that the number of China's patent applications has multiplied tenfold since 2000, few can doubt that Beijing is on target to hit its goal of two million annual filings by 2015.

Yet our reader is unconvinced. "How can we tell a good patent from a useless one?" he wonders.

It's a good question. Dig beneath the headline numbers, and China's achievement in surpassing the US begins to look rather less impressive.

The first thing to note is that last month's gushing news reports all focused on the figure for patent applications by the office at which they were filed.

However, if you look at the number of patent filings by the nationality of the applicant, the picture changes.

In 2011, Chinese inventors filed some 436,000 applications at offices around the world.

In contrast, Japanese boffins were responsible for more than 472,000 applications, catapulting the country into first place for patent filings.

Secondly, it is doubtful how much the raw numbers for patent applications really tell us about a country's ability to innovate. It's more informative to examine the numbers of patents actually granted, and if we look at these, the picture changes again.

China's State Intellectual Property Office may have received more than 500,000 filings in 2011, but it only granted 172,000 patents, and 35 per cent of those were from foreign applicants.

Worldwide, Chinese inventors were awarded just 118,000 patents in 2011. That puts China in third place behind Japan on more than 300,000 and the US on 200,000 (see the second chart).

And if you count the countries of the European Union as a single entity, then China slips another rung down the ladder into fourth place.

A glance at the areas in which Chinese inventors applied for patents is even more revealing. While China was responsible for huge numbers of filings in established fields like digital communications, its performance in cutting-edge technologies was weaker.

For example, although Beijing likes to boast that China leads the world in developing clean-energy technology, Chinese inventors accounted for only 10 per cent of worldwide filings for solar, wind and geothermal energy patents in 2011, and just 3 per cent of fuel-cell patent applications.

These figures would appear to support the conclusions of a report published last August by the European Union Chamber of Commerce in China that argued that despite China's high numbers of patent filings, the quality of many applications is poor, partly because of distortions produced by Beijing's targets.

As a result, the report concluded, "the strength of China's actual innovation is overhyped".

Our reader was right to be sceptical.