16 Apr 2020

IP rights gain traction in China as it supplants US as the world's most active WIPO patent filer

America loses top spot for the first time in almost half a century; expert points to 'dramatic' improvement in China enforcement regime

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Huawei University, Hangzhou, China: Huawei Technologies was the top corporate filer in 2019 shutterstock

China overtook the US as the top filer of international patent applications in 2019 via the World Intellectual Property Organization’s (WIPO’s) Patent Cooperation Treaty system, ending more than four decades of American IP dominance.

China filed 58,900 applications through the PCT system last year—roughly 1,000 more than the US, WIPO data show. That is the first time since the PCT system began operating in 1978 that the US was not the leading international patent filer. 

Francis Gurry, WIPO’s director general, said: “China’s rapid growth to become the top filer of international patent applications via WIPO underlines a long-term shift in the locus of innovation towards the East, with Asia-based applicants now accounting for more than half of all PCT applications.”

Patent Attorney Andrew White, of London-based IP firm Mathys & Squire, said Chinese businesses were receiving subsidies to file patent applicants as part of concerted effort by China to increase its dominance in the IP sector.

“I suspect that many applicants are filing PCT applications to obtain the subsidy but then do not necessarily follow through with the applications in other territories,” he said.

However, he added that there had been a corresponding dramatic improvement in the enforcement of the IP rights of foreign companies in China “which should indicate to many western businesses looking to manufacture or expand into China that they should obtain IP rights in China and that those rights should, in the large part, be enforceable”.

Meanwhile, Japan was the third-highest source of PCT applications in 2019 with 52,600, followed by Germany (19,353) and South Korea (19,085). 

Chinese telecoms giant Huawei Technologies was the top corporate filer in 2019 for the third year running, racking up 4,411 published PCT applications, almost double the amount published by Japan’s Mitsubishi Electric, which filed the second highest amount of patents with 2,661. 

It was followed by South Korea’s Samsung (2,334), American firm Qualcomm (2,127) and China’s Guang Dong Oppo Mobile Telecommunications (1,927).

However, patents filed by Chinese universities continued to lag the US, with the University of California maintaining its top rank with 470 applications, followed by Tsinghua University (265), Shenzhen University (247) and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (230). Five US universities ranked inside the top 10, with four from China and one from South Korea.

In total, international patents filed via the PCT system rose 5.2% in 2019 to 265,800 applications, according to WIPO data.

Gurry added: “IP is increasingly at the heart of global competition. Nevertheless, it is important to remember that innovation is not a zero-sum game—that a net increase in global innovation means new drugs, communications technologies, solutions for global challenges that benefit everyone, wherever they live.”

Meantime, international trademark applications via the Madrid system rose 5.7% to 64,400 applications, while protections for industrial designs via the Hague system jumped 10.4% to 21,807 designs. The US filed the most trademark applications, with Germany filing the most protections for industrial designs.

Further reading on IP

The demise of the Unified Patent Court is a backward step — Taylor Wessing's Simon Cohen and Paul England ask what will follow the collapse of Europe's plans for a UPC

Is Europe's unified patent court dead in the water - or can it be revived? The demise of plans for a European patent court is bad for clients, but could be better news for London

Annual US patent grants at all-time high - Samsung tops the IFI's global ranking with most patents currently held, while IBM leads again with most US patent grants in 2019