The number of European patent applications filed last year fell for the first time in 20 years, according to new figures released by the European Patent Office (EPO).
In 2009, 135,000 applications were received – 8% fewer than in 2008.
The drop in the number of filings from outside the 36 member states of the European Patent Office (EPO) was sharper (-11%) than for filings from European countries (-5%).
At 52,000, the number of patents granted was also lower than in 2008, a fall of 13% compared to the previous year.
The EPO says the fact that the fall in approvals is partly due to its increased focus on quality over quantity. In an effort to chip away at the backlog of applications, patent examiners carried out more examinations but the grant rate was lower.
Germany tops the table
As in previous years, Germany filed the most patents, followed by France and the Netherlands.
All of the major European filing countries saw a drop in activity in 2009 except for Sweden and Austria, which remained stable. The sharpest declines were noted in Finland (-20%), Belgium (-14%) and Italy (-11%).
Among non-European countries, the US and Japan were once again by far the largest countries of origin of European patent applications, with the US accounting for 24.5% of the total and Japan 14.8%. South Korean applicants accounted for 3.1%.
China saw growth of 9% over 2008 and continues to rank among the five most active non-European applicant countries.
Growth in renewable energy
Despite the overall decline in filings, there was growth in renewable energy patent applications, although the largest number of patent applications was filed in the field of medical technology.
In the area of renewable energies, the number of applications in relevant domains, namely biomass, hydro/tide/wave, photovoltaic, solar thermal and wind energy, increased significantly (+27%) to reach 1,259.
The biggest increases were noted in the areas of wind energy (up by 51%) and solar thermal energy (up 38%). In both categories, applicants from the US (27% of wind and 12% of solar thermal applications) and Germany (23% wind, 34% solar thermal) headed the table.
Of the 363 applications filed in photovoltaics, 108 (30%) came from Japan, 77 from the US (21%) and 46 from Germany (13%).
The filing figures went down in all of the usual leading technical fields, but especially in basic electric elements, electric communication techniques and computing. The field of fluid-powered machines saw the biggest growth – up 36% over last year.
Patent applications in Europe have grown steadily since the early 1990s, leading to concerns about excessive delays in processing new patents. Costs for patent applications are also higher in Europe than in the US and Japan.
Moves to develop a Community patent for the EU began in 2003, but progress has been hampered by repeated technical and legal difficulties, although the Swedish Presidency of the EU moved the (EURACTIV 4/12/09).
Preliminary figures in the early months of 2009 indicated that new patent applications were down around 7% (EURACTIV 30/04/09). Experts say the patent numbers tend to decline in the wake of economic downturns, usually lagging behind the worst of the recession by around one year (EURACTIV 28/10/09).
- 28-29 April 2010: European Patent Forum & European Inventor Award, Madrid.