Chinese innovation takes country to top of patent lists

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A new report from Thomson Reuters reveals the dramatic growth in Chinese patents. Siân Harris finds out what this means for patent information

If you are a researcher wanting to know about the latest inventions in your field there is a country that is becoming increasingly unwise to ignore.

According to a recently-updated report by Thomson Reuters into innovation in Asia, by the end of 2011 China had overtaken every other country in the world in the number of invention patents it files each year. This landmark event occurred a year earlier than Thomson Reuters had previously predicted in its 2008 report into Chinese patent filings.

Figures from the State Intellectual Property Office of the People’s Republic of China (SIPO) echo this growth. SIPO reported receiving a total of 1.633 million applications in 2011, an increase of 33.6 per cent on 2010. This was made up of 526,000 inventions, 585,000 utility models and 522,000 designs. And SIPO granted a total of 961,000 patents, which was an increase of 17.9 per cent on the previous year, says the office.

The European Patent Office (EPO) has also observed a shift towards Asia. According to the EPO, of the 243,000 applications it received in 2011, a clear majority (62 per cent of all 2011 filings) came from non-European countries. But, while Europe’s share of EPO applications was virtually unchanged from the previous year, both China’s and Japan’s shares increased (to seven per cent and 19 per cent from five per cent and 18 per cent respectively in 2010).

The growth in patents and patent applications in and from China has been strongly encouraged by the Chinese government, which has set the country a five-year plan that includes specific goals relating to patenting.

‘Patents are very tangible measures of innovation,’ said Bob Stembridge, customer relations manager of Thomson Reuters and author of the company’s report into patenting in China. ‘The country is transforming from "made in China" to "designed in China".’ He noted that there has also been an increase in domestic filings – in other words, innovation by local, rather than foreign, companies. According to the Thomson Reuters report, the ratio of domestic to total applications in China grew from less than 52 per cent in 2006 to nearly 73 per cent in 2010.

Meanwhile, the latest SIPO figures indicate a rapid growth in PCT filings. It received 17,473 PCT applications, up 35.3 per cent from 2010. This indicates, say analysts, that more Chinese companies are now eyeing overseas markets and patenting abroad. In addition, according to the Thomson Reuters report, while the majority of WIPO filings pass on to the Chinese patent office to be processed as Chinese national patent applications, significant numbers pass through to the US, European, Australian, Japanese and Korean patent offices to be processed as national patents in these regions also.

The projected growth in published patent applications for key regions shows that China is expected to continue increasing its share of patents. Data from Thomson Reuters, 2011

The innovation areas are also well spread, according to Stembridge of Thomson Reuters. In 2010, the biggest sectors in China in terms of patents were electrical machinery, digital communication, computer technology, measurement instruments and pharmaceuticals. In 2008, for the first time, a Chinese company (Huawei Technologies) topped the list of applicants to the World Intellectual Property Office (WIPO).

The need for information

With such a growth in innovation in China, especially home-grown innovation, the need for people in other countries to find out about this innovation is enormous. It’s a huge task. Many of the innovations in China come from small companies or individuals rather than from enormous businesses with international footprints.

And it is not just patents either. The Chinese government has set targets for academic papers too, with the aim for the country to be fifth in the world in citation ranking by 2015. According to the Thomson Reuters report, China’s global ranking based on citations in international science papers moved from 13th in 2006 to eighth in 2010.

China’s latest five-year plan also includes an increase in R&D expenditure as a proportion of GDP from 1.75 per cent in 2010 to 2.2 per cent in 2015 and an increase in invention patent ownership per 10,000 head of population from 1.7 to 3.3. Furthermore, the Chinese National Patent Development Strategy (2011-2020) includes the goal that ‘by 2015 the annual quantity of applications for patents for inventions, utility models and designs will reach two million.’

All of this means that insight into patents from China will continue to become more essential for inventors all over the world.

Innovation in patent information

Information about patents around the world is very important and many recent efforts in developing patent information resources tools have focused on addressing this issue. Here are some of the recent developments in patent information resources, with a particular focus on Asia:

  • The European Patent Office (EPO) and the State Intellectual Property Office of the People’s Republic of China (SIPO) recently formed an agreement on Chinese-English machine translation, which both offices have committed to making available to the public next year. They are also developing an electronic exchange of priority documents between the two offices and will support each other in raising awareness of the European patent system in China and the Chinese patent system in Europe, according to the deal.
  • Minesoft and RWS Group recently announced enhancements to the searchable, full-text coverage in the PatBase patent database. Asian patent literature is a priority in PatBase, say the partners, who point out that a Japanese interface has been offered with PatBase from the outset. Developments over recent years include the non-Latin search forms (for Japan, China, Korea and Thailand) and native searching in the command line, the integration of machine-translation engines and the inclusion of the Japanese F-term classification system. In the past year, Japanese and Chinese full-text coverage has been extended to include documents from 1998 and 1985 onwards respectively, and users will soon be able to search machine-translated full text for those countries in English, with a side-by side display of the original and machine-translated text for easy review. The database also now includes Indian full-text applications from 2005, Brazilian full-text records from 2007, and Russian PCT documents searchable in the original language, as well as full-text records from several additional European countries.

  • This year, the partners of STN, Chemical Abstracts Service and FIZ Karlsruhe, are phasing a new STN platform into the market. The new platform promises ‘improved efficiency and usability at the expert level’, with project-oriented workflow, combined text and structure queries, simultaneous query and results interaction, and real-time analysis of results.
    ‘While the new STN will offer a wide range of advancements, it will also retain the unique values of STN that are trusted by patent search professionals today, including the STN command line, search precision and high-quality content,’ commented Sabine Brünger-Weilandt, president and CEO of FIZ Karlsruhe when the enhancements were announced.
    The initial customer release will include the core databases of CAS and Thomson Reuters, a number of full-text patent files, and a suite of critical features and functions. Subsequent releases will be enhanced with additional databases and functionality, say the partners.
  • In May Questel and CKS (ChuoKogakuShuppan), a patent information service in Asia, signed a distribution deal in Japan to sell Questel’s online IP service orbit. com. The partnership is said to be part of the French company’s strategy to expand in Asia and particularly in Japan.
    According to Questel’s CEO Charles Besson, ‘ChuoKogakuShuppan has the most comprehensive knowledge in intellectual property in the Land of the Rising Sun. I am convinced that Questel and CKS are entering a long-term partnership.’
  • Thomson Innovation recently gained what is described as a more intuitive user interface that will ‘speed your workflow and bring forward the information you need – exactly when you need it.’ The new release promises numbered step functionality for key features and universal menu bars that put functions all in one place. It also offers more use of tabs, which Thomson Reuters says means less scrolling for the information you need, and a quick record view that gives one-second-per-record paging. Larger images with immediate access to all drawings are promised, as well as better readability with larger text and flexible font sizes and faster ways to review and collect records.
    These developments follow the product’s September enhancements, which added additional news content and functionality. Canadian full-text coverage and Japanese language search were also added to the product at the same time.