08 Mar 2018   |   News

European Patent Office sees record number of applications in 2017

China continues innovation surge, with technology firm Huawei rising to the top. But there has was no progress with Europe’s unitary patent

The number of patent applications in Europe rose to 166,000 last year, an increase of 4 per cent and an all time high that was fuelled mainly by companies from China and the US.

At the same time the office granted 106,000 patents, 10 per cent more than 2016.

Most patent filings came from the US, which accounted for a quarter of submissions, followed by Germany, Japan, France and China, according to EPO’s annual report, published this week.

Filings from China again saw double digit growth and were up 16.6 per cent, meaning China overtook Switzerland and Netherlands for the first time.

However, in terms of the number of applications per head of the population, the figures indicate the Swiss remain the most inventive in Europe.

Huawei comes top

For the first time in the history of the EPO, a Chinese company, the technology and smartphone supremo Huawei, filed the most patent applications. It has moved up from eleventh spot in just four years.

Huawei was followed by Siemens, LG and Samsung. Qualcomm, Royal Philips, United Technologies, Intel, Robert Bosch and Ericsson completed the top 10.

Because it is more expensive to patent with the EPO than any other patent office in the world, it is little surprise that two thirds of filings were from large companies. The rest were from small companies, universities and public research institutes, and lone inventors.

Medical technology remains the field with the greatest number of patent applications in Europe, followed by digital communications and computer technology.

Single patent held up again

Unlike in previous years, the president of EPO, Benoit Battistelli, whose office will administer the long-delayed unitary patent, did not make any firm predictions for when the system would come into force.

Contrary to what I said last year, nothing happened in 2017. We have not been able to deliver the first unitary patent,” said Battistelli.

Fifteen states have ratified the patent agreement so far. The German parliament cleared it, but the country’s constitutional court is now reviewing the agreement. “I don’t think the court will block the signature of the treaty,” Battistelli said.

The legal review is yet another spanner in the works for the unitary patent, which has been decades in the making, and is likely to push the creation of the system into 2019 or even 2020.

Brexit uncertainty reigns

The UK government, which played a big role in developing the unitary patent, plans to ratify the new system “in weeks”, Battistelli said.  

However, opting into the new system directly competes with the UK government’s intention to limit the legal remit of the European Court of Justice after Brexit.

One of the three branches of the new Unified Patent Court, ruling on pharmaceutical and biotech patent lawsuits, is to be based in London.

Battistelli is unsure about the UK’s future participation in the system, or whether London will be allowed to hold on to the court.

“I don’t know what will happen,” he said. “The unitary patent [requires] access to single market. It will depend on an answer to this question.”

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