Applications for European patents recorded a record high last year, exceeding pre-crisis levels of 2008 for the first time, but for the first time in the history of the European Patent Office the most patents were filed by a non-European firm.
Last year, the European Patent Office received a total of 257,744 patent filings from all over the world, representing a 5.2% increase over 2011 (244 934) and setting a new record. The Munich-based office also published 65,687 granted patents, 5.8% more than in 2011 (62,115).
Korean electrical goods manufacturer Samsung took pride of place on a table of the top-25 companies, applying for 2,289 patents and pipping German rival Siemens (2,193 patent applications) to first place.
Chinese tech company ZTE took tenth position in the list, with 1,184 patent applications in 2012, representing the first time that a Chinese company had made the top ten.
In all, Asian companies accounted for 12 of the top 25 companies applying for patents.
Chinese and Korean-based companies recorded the biggest increases – with 18,812 and 14,491 applications last year respectively – taking the fourth and fifth places for countries, after the US, Japan and Germany.
Two years ago the two Asian countries applied for the same number of patents as France, which came in sixth place this year with 12,159 applications.
Patent applications return to pre-crisis levels
Mobile and digital technology accounted for the most growth in applications (up 11% and 20% respectively) whilst pharmaceutics slipped slightly on last year and biotechnology recorded a 4% fall in the number of overall patent applications.
In the sectors of digital communication and computer technology, however, European companies were trailing behind, accounting for 32% and 29% of all applications, whilst they continued to perform well in traditional sectors such as chemicals and turbines, accounting for more than half of all applications.
Benoît Battistelli, the president of the European Patent Office, dismissed claims that Samsung’s seizure of the pole position for patent applications was indicative of European malaise. He pointed to the general rise in applications, which for the first time has exceeded the proportions of 2008, as a sign that Europe was climbing out of the crisis.
“If you accept the idea that patents are a good indicator of the technological development of an economy and innovation of economies, then you can consider that if there are more and more applications and grants then this is a sign that the economy is developing positively,” Battistelli said.
The Munich-based patent office is now ready to start issuing the new European unitary patent from next year, he added.
Patent office ready for unitary patent
The new patent – which has been approved by all EU member states except for Italy and Spain – must be ratified in national legislation before the new patents can be issued.
Battistelli said that the process of dealing with the unitary patent applications will not represent a huge challenge to the office, since the same procedures as are currently used to clear patents will be employed.
The big difference will lie in the enforceability of the patents, he said, since companies will now no longer have to register their patents in those member states where they wish the patent to be enforceable, and will also face losing a patent’s viability if they lose a single court action under the new system.
The EU patent court will be shared between Paris, London and Munich. The court's central division will be in the French capital, Munich will deal with applications relating to mechanical engineeering, and the UK will be responsible for patents concerned with pharmaceuticals and chemistry.
Battistelli said that he expected a gradual uptake of the new patents, with companies beginning to register gradually, testing the waters of the new court system, before fully committing.