Technology

China breaks patent application record

Huawei Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Huawei was one of the most prolific Chinese patent applicants, making 3,898 filings last year

China-based innovators applied for a record-setting number of invention patents last year.

The country accounted for more than a million submissions, according to an annual report by the World Intellectual Property Organization (Wipo). It said the figure was "extraordinary".

Many of the filings were for new ideas in telecoms, computing, semiconductors and medical tech.

Beijing had urged companies to boost the number of such applications.

But some experts have questioned whether it signifies that the country is truly more inventive than others, since most of China's filings were done locally.


What is a patent?

Image copyright Thinkstock

A patent is the monopoly property right granted by a government to the owner of an invention.

This allows the creator and subsequent owners to prevent others from making, using, offering for sale or importing their invention into the country for a limited time.

In return they must agree for the patent filing to be publicly disclosed.

To qualify as an "invention" patent, the filing must contain a new, useful idea that includes a step - a new process, improvement or concept - which would not be obvious to a skilled person in that field.

Some countries - including China - also issue other types of patents:

  • Utility model patents. The ideas must still be novel, but it is less important that there is a "non-obvious step"
  • Design patents. These require the shape, pattern and/or colour of a manufactured object's design to be new, but do not require there to be a novel technical aspect

Read our guide to the world's patent system


Skewed figures

A total of 2.9 million invention patent applications were filed worldwide in 2015, according to Wipo, marking a 7.8% rise on the previous year.

China can lay claim to driving most of that growth. Its domestic patent office - the Property Office of the People's Republic of China (Sipo) - received a record 1,101,864 filings. These included both filings from residents of China and those from overseas innovators who had sought local protection for their ideas.

The tally was more than that of Sipo's Japanese, South Korean and US equivalents combined.

Applicants based in China filed a total of 1,010,406 invention patents - the first time applicants from a single origin had filed more than one million in a single year.

But they appeared to be reticent about seeking patent rights abroad.

According to Wipo, China-based inventors filed just 42,154 invention patent applications outside their borders - Huawei and ZTE, two smartphone and telecoms equipment-makers, led the way.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption There was a rise in the number of medical tech patent filings from China

By comparison US-based inventors sought more than five times that figure. And Japan, Germany and France also outnumbered the Asian giant.

One patent expert - who asked not to be named - suggested the disparity between Chinese inventors' local and international filings reflected the fact that not all the claims would stand up to scrutiny elsewhere.

"The detail of what they are applying for means they would be unlikely to have the necessary degree of novelty to be granted a patent worldwide," he said.

But Wipo's chief economist said things were not so clear cut.

"There is clearly a discussion out there as to what is the quality of Chinese patents," said Carsten Fink.

"But questions have also been asked about US and other [countries'] patents.

"And one should keep in mind that China is a huge economy.

"If you look at its patent filings per head of population, there are still fewer patents being filed there than in the United States."

Patent boom

Part of the reason so many applications were made locally was that China set itself a target to boost all types of patent filings five years ago.

Sipo declared at the time that it wanted to receive two million filings in 2015.

The government supported the initiative with various subsidies and other incentives.

Adding together China's invention, utility and design patents, its tally for 2015 was about 2.7 million filings, meaning it surpassed its goal by a wide margin.

One London-based patent lawyer noted that Chinese firms were not just filing patents of their own but also buying rights from overseas companies.

"This all goes to show the growth of the telecoms and high-tech industries in China, and that these companies are playing a more significant role globally than hitherto," said Jonathan Radcliffe from Reed Smith.

"The fact we are now seeing them suing and being sued for patent infringement in Europe and in the US on subject matter such as mobile phones and telecoms standards - and indeed seeing Chinese companies suing each other over here in Europe for patent infringement - shows that they have truly arrived."

This story was updated to include comment from Wipo

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