Focus should be on quality, not quantity, of patents, expert says

China should not be unrealistically optimistic over a UN agency report that indicated it recorded a huge increase in patent applications over the past decade, a mainland intellectual property expert said yesterday, warning that many of the patents involved little innovation.

President Hu Jintao recognised the problem in January when he told a national science and technology conference that the mainland had to shed its image as a world-class economy with poor homegrown high technology and set its sights on innovations in key areas in the next 15 years.

The World Intellectual Property Organisation said China had recorded a nearly sevenfold increase in patent applications in the past decade, with the number reaching 130,384 in 2004. The significant increase pushed China, often criticised for rampant intellectual property theft, past Germany and up to fifth in the global ranking of patent applications in 2004, after Japan, the United States, the European Union and South Korea.

Tao Xinliang , dean of Shanghai University's Intellectual Property School, said the big rise in patent filings indicated an increased awareness of the need to respect and protect intellectual property rights, but the country should take a rational attitude towards the numbers and the ranking because many patents were not based on innovation.

'We should not be unrealistically optimistic and be captivated by the numbers and the ranking,' he said. 'We should pay more attention to the quality of the patents.'

Professor Tao said about two-thirds of patents were for 'low-level' innovations - new ideas about a product's appearance such as its shape, structure and colour. Only about one-third were based on hi-tech innovation and techniques.

He also said that among those hi-tech patents, more than 65 per cent were created and applied for by foreign enterprises and individuals while only 35 per cent were from domestic companies and residents.

'Some patents are so-called 'fake patents' and 'trash patents' without any innovation. China has fallen far behind many western countries if we take patent quality into account.'

Professor Tao said China should change its patent application system from being 'quantity-oriented' to 'quality-oriented'. He said the mainland should cancel subsidies for patent applications and abandon the tallies of patent application numbers.

The central government offers subsidies to patent applicants to stimulate innovation.

But Professor Tao said many officials used the number of patent applications as a measure of 'political performance' and encouraged nonsense filings.