Patent statistics are often used as a measure of innovation and economic activity.  Recently, the European Patent Office (EPO) released its 2020 Patent Index of patent filings at the EPO.  Given the impact of the global pandemic in 2020, the figures are particularly interesting.

Overall, the level of patent filings remained stable, just 0.7% down from the previous year.  While the rate of patent filings has generally been increasing for decades, such a modest drop has been seen in previous years.  However, it is necessary to look deeper into the figures to understand the trends.

Nationality of the Applicants

There was a general decrease in filings from applicants from the European national states, the US and Japan.  However, this was offset by substantial increases (nearly 10%) in filings from China and Korea.  For China, this increase is actually rather modest.  For example, in 2019 patent filings from China increased by 29%.  Nevertheless, filings from China still only represent 7% of all patent applications received.

Yann Ménière, EPO Chief Economist, gave his opinion in a podcast which can be found here.  He believes the patent system is resilient, with most applicants looking a few years ahead to when the product associated with the patent filing will hit the market.  However, US applicants tend to react more quickly (the same happened after the 2008 financial crisis).  He also said we may be at the beginning of the drop and it could take three or more years for things to settle back to normal.

The top three applicants were Samsung, Huawei and LG.  Nevertheless, five of the top ten applicants were European and just one was from the US.  SMEs made up 21% of all filings.  There was a significant fall in applications from universities and public bodies.

Technology Fields

Usually, the total filings in particular technology fields only rise or fall by one or two percent from one year to the next.  But 2020 was different.  The top field was medical technology, which was up 2.6%; but biotechnology and pharmaceuticals were up 6.3% and 10.2% respectively. This shows that investment was strong in medical research for novel vaccines and therapeutics, as well as for diagnostic devices and medical equipment.

Notably, there was a fall of 5.5% in patent applications for transport related technologies, particularly in the aviation sector.  The automotive sector was steadier due to an increase in applications for car battery technology.

World events do appear to be reflected in the figures, primarily the pandemic but also the likes of the move towards greener technologies.  It will be interesting to see how the situation evolves in the next few years.


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