China has become the first country to receive more than 1m patent applications in a single year — a record the World Intellectual Property Organisation said reflected “extraordinary” levels of innovation in the world’s most populous nation.
“[The Chinese] are making innovation a central part of their economic strategy,” Francis Gurry, director-general of the UN agency, said at a briefing in Geneva.
While sceptics have long argued that China’s patent figures are skewed by state-driven filing targets, intellectual property lawyers argue that they also reflect the country’s growing inventiveness.
“The Chinese government still wants people to file patents and they get explicit and implicit rewards for doing so,” said Erick Robinson, a Beijing-based patent lawyer. “But the quality of patents in China is improving at breathtaking speed.”
According to Wipo figures, China’s patent office received 1,101,864 applications in 2015 from both domestic and foreign filers, accounting for almost 40 per cent of the global total and more than the next three countries — the US, Japan and Korea — combined.
“Once again we see an increasing dominance by Asia as the origin of filing activity for intellectual property,” Mr Gurry added, noting that Asian countries had received more than 60 per cent of total patent filings last year.
“The Chinese government’s strategic policies are encouraging innovation,” said Zhang Xuemei at Janlea, a Beijing intellectual property agency. “Chinese companies are also more aware of the importance of protecting their IP.”
Mr Robinson cited WeChat, the social media platform developed by internet group Tencent, as an example of Chinese innovation at its best. “WeChat took some functionality from a lot of other applications but just made it better,” he said.
However, Yang Yuzhou, a Shanghai patent lawyer at Dacheng Law, noted that China, unlike the US, recognises “utility model” patents, which are typically easier to secure and protect inventions for a shorter period of time than standard patents. “It’s also much cheaper to file for patents in China than in the US and Japan,” he said.
China is also becoming an increasingly attractive jurisdiction for patent infringement disputes, given the speed with which its court system processes cases. Companies whose intellectual property has been stolen can also secure bans that prevent the infringing party from selling in China’s vast market or exporting from the country — a crippling blow given China’s centrality to global supply chains.
In terms of overseas filings, US patent holders lodged the most applications, ahead of Japan and Germany. Mr Gurry said this reflected the importance of trade and foreign investment to the US business community.
President-elect Donald Trump has, however, pledged to withdraw from Barack Obama’s Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, which would have bound the US more closely to 11 other Pacific trading nations.
Separately, Wipo said trademark applications surged 16 per cent worldwide to 5.9m last year, while industrial design applications increased 2.3 per cent globally to 873,000. China led the world in both categories as well.
Mr Trump recently won a protracted trademark case against a Chinese construction services company that had registered the Trump brand.
Additional reporting by Wan Li
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