Potential Challenges of Soaring Patent Applications

In 2017, the most recent year for which statistics are available, the total number of patent applications surpassed 3.1 million. It was the eighth consecutive year of growth in the number of intellectual property (IP) filings, and again, China dominated filing activity, followed by the United States.

This growth is exciting as inventions signal progress, a lively entrepreneurial spirit and general optimism about the future. However, these larger volumes threaten to break an already strained patent system.

Recent Patent Statistics

To better understand the state of the global patent system, it’s important to know some key statistics:

Number of applications

  • China accounted for 1.38 million or 44% of total patent applications
  • The US accounted for 606,956 or 19% of total
  • Japan accounted for 318,479 or 10.1% of total
  • Republic of Korea 204, 775 or 6.5% of total
  • The European Patent Office (EPO) accounted for 166,585 or 5.3% of total

When these numbers are weighted by the GDP of each country, the Republic of Korea filed more patent applications per unit of GDP ($100 billion) than any other country. The computer technology and electrical machinery, apparatus and energy categories saw the most applications. Other top technology categories included medical technology, optics and transport.

The current system is slow, and a number of years can pass between application and patent being granted.

Average age of granted application

  • In Brazil, the average granted application age is 10.1 years
  • In the EPO, the average age is 5.5 years
  • In Japan, the average age is 5.3 years
  • In the US, the average age is 3.5 years
  • In China, the average age is 2.9 years
  • In Korea, the average age is 2.8 years

The high tech and life sciences industries typically have longer pendency periods than other industries.

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Current Challenges

More patents were filed in 2017 using the Patent Cooperation Treaty (PCT) System which simplifies the complicated process of applying for protection in multiple jurisdictions. While the PCT creates a modest efficiency in the system by removing duplicate applications, it doesn’t completely fix the system. The system still remains under strain as examiners struggle to keep on top of the growing number of applications.

Slow grant times are a problem for a number of reasons:

  • If it takes to long to issue a patent, the patent may only have a few weeks left before it expires
  • It keeps entrepreneurs from progressing with their innovative ideas
  • It prevents consumers from being able to access new products
  • It hurts the global economy

The larger volume of applications also impacts the patent search process. Entrepreneurs, individuals and companies all rely on patent searches to determine if their new idea is worth pursuing. This is already a cumbersome process that requires filtering through a massive amount of data and trying to decipher and interpret tricky documents.

More patent filings, especially more international applications, mean even more data and even more languages. Searching through increasingly complex information is likely to be more difficult than it already is.

Future Expectations

Can the patent system sustain even more applications? If nothing is done to improve the system, then it’s likely that the backlog will continue to grow, and the pace of innovation could slow.

This system is poised for technological advancement itself. Not only are more and better qualified examiners needed, but something needs to be done to improve how applications are examined and granted. This could involve greater transparency, reformed processes, removal of redundant work and greater collaboration. The required changes will likely vary by country, but action needs to be taken in order for patents to catch up to the global growth of innovation.

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