“Patents granted worldwide have increased at an average annual rate of 3.6% to about 600,000 in 2005. At the end of 2005, there were approximately 5.6 million patents in force worldwide. … However, the use of the patent system remains highly concentrated with only five patent offices (China, Japan, the European Patent Office, the Republic of Korea and the United States of America) accounting for 77% of all patents filed and 74% of all patents granted.”

These are highlights in a report by the UN body, the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO). Its assessment is in its “WIPO Patent Report: Statistics on Worldwide Patent Activity (2007 Edition)”.

The Report ranks Australia highly on a number of scales. For example, it is a popular place for worldwide applicants to file – it is 12th in the report’s chart of “the country of residence of non-resident patent filings worldwide”. Better still, Australia is 5th in the chart of “the number of resident patent applications per million inhabitants”. This provides some indication of the level of innovation and invention by applicants resident in Australia.

Patents by technical field

In the five years from 2000 to 2004 inclusive, the technical field which consistently ranked first for the most patent applications filed, was [drum roll] … “information technology” (IT). No surprise there. See the Report graphic below.

  • In 2004 WIPO finds 141,357 patent applications filed for IT worldwide.
  • Based on a subset of the worldwide data, ie data from major patent offices, IT applications accounted in the 2000-2004 period for 36% of all applications in the United States and a surprisingly low 2% in Australia. We presume there were quite a few digital camera patents in that pile.
  • Using similar subset data, the figures for the field of “Telecommunications” are 29% for the US and again 2% for Australia.

Perhaps the 2% figures for Australia are not low when you consider that in the 2000-2004 period for the field of “Agricultural and food processing, machinery and apparatus” (a traditional area of local strength) Australia again had 2% of the worldwide patent applications filed.

Patent applications by number pending examination

Australia is certainly tracking exceptionally well in terms of the number of patent applications awaiting examination. So it’s a “V” for Victory salute for IP Australia.

This result must be measured against the fact that countries and patent offices where the patents pending number is vastly greater, eg United States and Japan, are also countries which receive an exceptionally high number of applications. The United States of America had a shocking number of 900,000 patents pending in 2005. The Japanese Patent Office had more than 800,000 patents pending in 2005, though this is apparently partly due to procedural changes.

Patents by non-residents

The percentage of Australian patents granted to non-residents in 2005 was 89%. WIPO data also indicates that the leading country from which patents are filed worldwide in different jurisdictions is Japan. It is followed in order by the United States, Republic of Korea, Germany, France, China, Russian Federation, United Kingdom, Switzerland, Netherlands, Sweden, Canada, Italy, Finland and then Australia. Below Australia are Spain, Ukraine, Austria and Belgium.

Patents in force by country of origin

The long list of countries in the prior paragraph hides a fact – by a huge margin the two leading countries of origin for patents in force in 2005 worldwide were first Japan then the United States. They are followed a long way back by the Republic of Korea, France, Germany and other countries. Australia is 17th in this list.

The Report has one graphic illustrating the rise and rise of patent applications filed worldwide:


An even more interesting Report graphic breaks down the figures for patents in force worldwide (ie those which have successfully progressed through the application process):


Intellectual property take-off moment

In the 20th century an American economist (Walt Whitman Rostow) invented the concept of economic or industrial “take-off“. He observed that countries on the road to modernisation or industrialisation seemed to take-off or advance towards industrialisation at a certain moment in history. High school economics teachers taught that Australia’s industrialisation take-off moment was in the 1940s.

In the 21st century a country’s take-off moment might also be applied as regards its use of intellectual property.

There is a graph in the Report which evidences just such a take-off moment for the use of patents (one of the types of intellectual property) by Japan, then Korea and more recently China. Japan’s patent filing take-off moment was in the early 1970s. The Republic of Korea’s was in the early 1990s. China’s was in about 2000. These Lightbulb observations are drawn from a graphic in the Report under the heading “B.2 Evolution of Worldwide Patent Filings“.


Three practical hints for invention commercialisation

1. File patents If you are inventing IT or Telecommunications solutions, or for that matter any invention, consider making a patent application. Patents really are very powerful.

2. Create IP strategy A patent does not suit the intellectual property strategy for all inventions. A company may choose alternative methods of intellectual property protection, such as using trade secrets law, technical solutions, marketing techniques or a combination of these and other solutions.  Whatever the mix, for commercialisation all inventions appoint advisers to create an intellectual property strategy.

3. Search patents For worry-free sleep, definitely at least commission and review a patent search before investing sweat, time, money or other resources hoping to gain an intellectual property monopoly or legal ground you can defend.

Footnote: The statistics in the WIPO report are stated as being drawn from information supplied to WIPO by patent offices in annual surveys as well as other sources. Care is needed in their use. The number of patent applications can vary between different countries due to the differences in patent systems (eg provisional applications, utility models or design patents). Among the many other variables, there may be multiple counting for applications filed in several countries.

Noric Dilanchian