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UK faces a brain drain if its lackadaisical approach to patenting doesn’t change

An article (in German) in yesterday’s Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) compares the size of the research and development community in selected countries with the number of domestic patent applications. While it seems to be an arbitrary comparison, the statistics do appear to reflect some interesting trends in the patenting environments of different countries.

A graph that features in the FAZ article combines UNESCO data on the number of researchers per million inhabitants in each of the countries listed with WIPO figures on the number of patent applications submitted per million inhabitants by residents of those countries. ‘Researchers’ are defined by UNESCO (using the definition outlined by the Frascati Manual) as “professionals engaged in the conception or creation of new knowledge, products, processes, methods and systems, as well as in the management of the projects concerned”.

The findings as presented on the FAZ’s graph are reproduced below:

Japan – 2,250 domestic patent applications per million inhabitants; 5,151 researchers per million inhabitants

United States – 794; 4,650

United Kingdom – 321; 4,202

Germany – 896; 3,950

France – 371; 3,789

Russia – 189; 3,120

China – 309; 963

The FAZ suggests that conclusions can be drawn from the comparison of these statistics regarding how innovative each country’s R&D ecosystem is. Of course, the only concrete information that patent filing data can give us relates to patenting activity; when it comes to innovation patents are merely a possible indicator. But while there is no clear relationship between the FAZ’s two sets of statistics, considering them in parallel does, on the face of it, reinforce some of things we know about patenting behaviours in the listed countries.

In Japan, the ratio between researchers and patent filings per million is almost two to one. Japanese companies have for many years been focused on building large IP portfolios primarily for defensive purposes. As a result, they have been avid patent filers. More recently, they have begun to explore ways of monetising these extensive portfolios in order to extract additional value, as the advent of state-backed patent funds, the market entry of NPEs and a number of privateer-type deals have shown.

Chinese entities file a lot of patent applications in proportion to the number of researchers working in the country. FAZ asks how this “unusually high creativity” of Chinese researchers can be accounted for. Of course, a high volume of patent applications from a small group of researchers does not tell us too much about how innovative the research being done actually is. China’s ratio is perhaps better explained by the fact that authorities in the country have for some years provided attractive incentives to encourage domestic businesses to file large numbers of patents. And the ratio of researchers to patents may tell us something about the quality of what is being granted – particularly when bearing in mind that most issued patents in China cover utility models and designs, neither of which undergo substantive examination.

Another noteworthy trend the FAZ statistics emphasise is that both France and Germany outstrip the UK in terms of patent applications made by residents, despite the UK’s proportionately larger R&D community. Of course, there may be any number of reasons why that might be the case. For example, a large number of researchers may be dedicating their time to research projects that result in few patent filings.

Alternatively, however, we might conclude that the FAZ table supports other evidence suggesting that UK companies and research institutes are lagging far behind their counterparts in other countries in terms of protecting the fruits of their R&D. Without such protections in place, securing a return on R&D investment becomes much harder, so imperilling future investments in R&D. That, in turn, could lead a growing number of the UK’s research community to consider quitting the country for places where they can have more certainty that their work will be rewarded.


Jack Ellis
IAM Magazine
13 February 2014

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IP management, IP politics, IA management, Patents

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