China has seized the global patent crown. More new inventions were filed in the country than anywhere else in the world in 2011 – the first time it has surpassed both the United States and Japan in the World Intellectual Property Organisation's (WIPO) rankings. Though mass-manufacturing of patents merits skepticism, it could also produce some good ideas.
As recent battles between Samsung and Apple show, an aggressive approach to intellectual property has become the norm. China's reputation is as a manufacturer, not an innovator. But if boffins lay claim to technologies that become industry standards, the country could become a force in sectors such as digital communications.
Cynics suggest China's patent rush is about quantity, not quality. Government targets and subsidies encourage inventors to register any old idea: they can receive funding to file an application regardless of whether or not the patent is subsequently granted.
The numbers offer some support for this view. China still lags behind Japan and the United States in terms of the number of patents actually granted in 2011. Moreover, Chinese inventors filed – and were granted – relatively few patents overseas.
Yet it's also possible that the figures don't show the full extent of China's recent rise. It can take three to four years for domestic patent applications to be granted. Applications for overseas patents can be filed as much as a year after the original filing at home, and could take even longer to show up in the data. Besides, as Chinese companies are less internationally active than their Japanese and U.S. peers, they don't have the same motivation to defend intellectual property abroad – at least for now.
Chinese companies that are operating globally do seem to think their ideas are worth protecting. In 2011 ZTE, the Chinese telecom equipment manufacturer, made more applications than any other company in the world under the Patent Cooperation Treaty – the system used to file multiple overseas applications simultaneously. Domestic rival Huawei ranked third. Korea's Samsung Electronics lagged behind in 15th place.
True, filing patents do not guarantee innovation or commercial success: Apple has changed the face of technology despite owning very few patents. China's patent blitz will inevitably produce duds – but may also deliver some gems.