Several data points demonstrate the context of this goal. It is reported that, in 2013, more than 825,000 patents were filed at the China State Intellectual Property Office. For that same year, it is reported that 629,612 patents were published in China (according to a Thomson Reuters study of December 2014, this is 200,000 more than the patents published in the US for the same year). On a comparative basis, as reported in the World Intellectual Property Indicators for 2014, 32% of the 2.57 million patents filed globally came from China. The corresponding figures for 2014 have not yet been published, but it is assumed that the figures will be even larger.
The background to this announced policy was stated on a post (January 4th) on the website of the Central People’s Republic as follows:
“Intellectual property is increasingly becoming a vital component of China’s strategic resources and competitive ability.”Add to this the observation made by the Reuters.com report of this announcement, namely that China views this step as part of its move to become a bigger player in the so-called innovation sectors, this against slower economic growth and ever-increasing costs of manufacture in the country.
However, holes have been picked regarding these Chinese patent-related data. As The Economist argued in a piece on December 13, 2014: (i) Chinese patent filings derive primarily from bureaucratic fiat and bear no necessary connection with the state of innovation in the country; (ii) these patents tend to be of “a lower quality”; (iii) the source of the patents are local Chinese companies rather than the Chinese branch of multinational companies and (iv) only a very small number of corresponding applications (5% of the Chinese-filed applications) are then filed abroad. The Economist concludes with a dismissive observation:
“That suggests that the bureaucrats’ orders are responsible, rather than the emergence of a local ecosystem of innovation as seen in Silicon Valley. Intellectual-property rights do matter, but merely churning out patents does little to advance innovation.”Grand Canal, this time in the context of intellectual capital. However, this Kat wonders whether such criticism misses the point, at least in part.
“Sauce for the goose, sauce for the gander”. The Chinese did not create the cottage industry of aggregating patent data at the national level. Those countries which traditionally came on top tended to engage in national chest-beating, while those who lagged felt a sense of national innovative inadequacy. Moreover, setting annual patent filing targets has been a part of many private companies for years, with corporate department and division budgets for the next fiscal year sometimes turning on how whether these targets were met . While there may be something blunderbuss about adopting targets for patent filings at the national level, it can hardly be said that the concept of setting such targets is unknown. Moreover, claims of poor patent quality have been part and parcel of the criticism of the US patent system for a number of years. Enter a new and ambitious kid on the patent block, which can be said to be besting the incumbents at their own numbers game, and all manner of reservations to this very approach of engaging in patent aggregates are raised. A more level playing field seems in order.
Bragging rights. National patent-filing and registration data are potentially a fertile opportunity to mobilize a sense of national pride. What country would not be able to tell its citizenry that it rests at the top of patent activity worldwide? More pointedly, such a message might also have the benefit of keeping the national narrative on technology front and centre, both by encouraging as many as possible to enter the world of technology and innovation and by making it more difficult for bureaucratic forces with other agendas to push back against this policy initiative.
What do we learn from the data on foreign filings? As this Kat has suggested, perhaps we are in the cusp of a more inward-focusing China with respect to technology. If so, the fact that, as of now, relatively few corresponding foreign filings have been made may be consistent with this apparent policy direction. If so, it seems only fair to let this policy play itself out before opining on its wisdom. Even if the suggestion about a more inward-focusing China is off the mark, perhaps the low percentage of foreign filings might signal that only more promising inventions are being pursued abroad. At the least, it seems that what is needed is robust research that compares the decision-making process for filing foreign applications and whether such filings can be linked to “stronger” or “weaker” underlying inventions.
This Kat has always felt a certain unease about aggregates of patent data, as if patents are a unitary phenomenon. But as long as such an approach to understanding the patent world continues, it seems to deserve a more nuanced discussion of the implications of these data.