Do more equal societies produce more patents?

One of the IPKat's pet hypotheses, stolen from somewhere or other, is the way people pronounce the word "patent" being a fairly good (though certainly not infallible) indication of whether they know anything about the subject.  On this count at least, Richard Wilkinson, co-author of the book "The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone" (available from Amazon here) is, the IPKat suspects, somewhat lacking in knowledge about IP.  This is not, however, the only reason that the IPKat is being slightly disrespectful to this eminent professor of epidemiology.  

(right: a spirit level, perhaps not the one the Professor had in mind)

One of the IPKat's readers has written to him about a discussion that was on the Radio 4 programme Today this morning (available here - the relevant bit is from about 4 minutes 20 seconds in), in which the professor said the following:
"If you look at patents per head of population in the rich countries, it's the more equal ones that do better, partly because more unequal societies are wasting their talent"
The IPKat was wondering whether this assertion stacks up at all.  Unfortunately, there was clearly no time in the interview to go into detail about what, if anything, lay behind it.  Firstly, is it even feasible to argue that the number of patents per head of population can be used as a measure of 'creativity' of a country? Secondly, is this analysis based on patents or patent applications? If the latter, then how is it creative to file application after application and get none of them granted? It requires a very creative mind to file lots of applications, each of which differs in only minor respects, so that protection for a product can effectively be extended beyond the usual 20 years, but this is probably not the sort of creativity the Professor had in mind.

The IPKat's correspondent also writes that, from his experience, any correlation between creativity and patents per person seems to be quite dubious.  Assuming that most patent applications are filed by large corporations and the motivation in many cases is to satisfy the bean counters, he is not sure if it is possible to say that there will be any kind of relationship at all.  Of course, there may be a whole body of research of which he (and the IPKat) is unaware showing that this is not the case.  If so, perhaps the IPKat's readers can point it out?

On the larger point of whether more equal societies will produce more patents per capita, the IPKat is even less sure.  We all know that the USA has one of the most unequal societies on the planet, but it is also particularly known for issuing a lot of patents (although perhaps not recently).  The Soviet Union, however, which had at least the aim of having the most equal society around, was not, as far as the IPKat is aware, known for its enthusiasm for patents. Perhaps, thinks the IPKat, this is just another case of an eminent professor over-enthusiastically expanding into areas outside his expertise without thinking properly first.  

Do more equal societies produce more patents? Do more equal societies produce more patents? Reviewed by David Pearce on Monday, February 01, 2010 Rating: 5


  1. I remember when a related issue came up in the 1990s, the Japanese were shown to have the largest number of patents. At the time, I thought it most likely to be due to the rather more restrictive laws on unity of invention in that country.Certainly, in those days, it was not unusual for a European Patent application to have several Japanese priority documents. (Another factor is the large number of private applicant patents in Japan, which if nothing else provided good entertainnment for Derwent staff like me (For example see below)). Given that the majority of patents are in "families" and owned by companies not necessarily based in the country of issue of the patent, it seems to this (admittedly unqualified) observer that the number of patents is more a function of the size of the economy in the territory in question as this drives whether it is viable to apply for and maintain a patent there.

  2. The pronunciation test may work in the UK or my home country of New Zealand - "pay-tent" is (or at least was) the educated pronunciation; but here in the US it is "pa-tent" even among those in the profession.

  3. Compare Germany and the UK. One has three times as many applications, and three times as many patent attorneys, as the other. How to explain the x3? The different law. German employee inventor law (also found in Japan and, I guess, South Korea, and originally promulgated by one A. Hitler), obliges an employee inventor to notify each innovation to the employer, and each employer to file on it.

    Now, UK patent attorneys, wouldn't you like to live in a more equal country like Germany?

  4. I was amused by your comment, Derek. Whether or not it used to be the 'educated' way to pronounce 'patent' in the way you say, the usual way now, at least according to every patent attorney I have ever spoken to, is the same as the American way.

  5. David, I think you need to qualify your comment with "in the UK". NZers, for example, do generally speak English, even if it is not the kind of English you speak. In NZ, in my experience, patent people say (or said; I've been out of the country for 10 years) pay-tent, not pat-ent. I suspect few Indian patent attorneys would say it he "American" way too because of the general conservative nature of Indian English.

    As an aside, I personally find the argument that it "should" be pronounced pat-ent because of way "patens" was (assumed to be) pronounced 2000 years ago to be completely bizarre. Languages evolve, dialects even more so. On that basis we "should" pronounce "novel" as "no-wellus".


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