China increases US patent holdings to 12%

WASHINGTON • Chinese inventors received a record number of US patents in 2018 and are on pace to overtake Germany in the No 4 position of top recipients, according to an analysis of filings with the US Patent and Trademark Office.

Inventors working for Chinese companies were issued 12,589 US patents in 2018, a 12% jump on the year and a 10-fold increase over the 1,223 they received a decade ago. The US still dominates the field, with 46% of the 308,853 US utility patents issued last year, followed by companies based in Japan, South Korea and Germany.

International Business Machines Corp (IBM) alone received 9,100 patents, retaining its spot as the top recipient and extending IBM’s streak to 26 years, according to the analysis by Fairview Research’s IFI Claims Patent Services.

Overall, the number of patents issued by the patent office declined 3.5% for the year, with every major country except China receiving fewer patents than the year before.

“The continuing push by China is very interesting,” said Larry Cady, senior analyst with IFI Claims. “China’s going to overtake Germany shortly — maybe not next year, but the year after.”

The world’s No 2 economy has spent billions of dollars to fund research in key technology fields like artificial intelligence, quantum computing and biotechnology. It’s sparked a global technology arms race that’s at the heart of US President Donald Trump’s trade war, as the Trump administration contends that China is stealing American know-how.

The steady rise in patent filings suggests Chinese companies are developing their own technology as well. The US patent office has a process to challenge patents filed based on stolen ideas, although few such proceedings have been filed against anyone.

The decline in the total topline number of issued patents reflects fewer applications lodged in the past couple of years, though there was a slight uptick last year, Cady said.

While Cady said it’s hard to know why applications had fallen, some companies have been hesitant to seek patents amid confusion over what types of inventions would pass muster, particularly in the software fields, combined with a broader attack on the system by firms that claimed patents did more to hinder innovation than encourage it.

Patents, enshrined in the US Constitution, are considered a “grand bargain” in which an inventor agrees to publicise how to duplicate their idea for others to build on, and in return gets exclusive rights to the invention for 20 years from the date of the application.

Six of the top 10 recipients of patents are US companies, including chip rivals Intel Corp and Qualcomm Inc, as well as Microsoft Corp and Apple Inc. Automaker Ford Motor Co was the only non-tech company in the top 10, and it’s been focusing a lot of effort on autonomous vehicles.

The four Asian companies in the top 10 were South Korea’s Samsung Electronics Co Ltd at No 2, Canon Inc of Japan, LG Electronics Inc, also from South Korea, and Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co Ltd.

Ford, Huawei Technologies Co Ltd — the networking company that the US has accused of being a security risk — and Chinese display-screen maker BOE Technology Group were the only companies in the top 20 to see double-digit increases over the year-ago period.

Samsung, which makes phones, semiconductors, televisions and refrigerators, is at the top with 61,608 patent families, followed by Canon with 34,906 and IBM with 34,376. — Bloomberg