First, a summary of the facts as set out in the report.
1. The total number of utility patents issued in 2008 by the USPTO was 157,774, slightly above the total for 2007.What are supposed to make of this information? Well, I guess at the simplest level, these data are the IP equivalent of what the hawkers used to cry out at the American baseball parks--"Scorecard here--you can't tell the players apart without a scorecard!" And so then I parted with my hard-earned 50 cents, only to realize that beyond the fact that I could link up the player's number with his name, the scorecard provided scant additional information, at least directly. That may be the case here as well.
2. IBM is still the corporate leader of US patents issued in 2008.
3. U.S. companies now number only 4 out of the 1op 10 slots (it was five out of 10 in 2007), and only 12 out of the top 35 slots. This should be compared with Japan, which has five of the top 10 and 14 out of the top 35. (It is not clear from the report what is the significance of the 35-company cut-off.)
4. The country scorecard for new patents in 2008 are as follows:
South Korea-- 5%
6. The leading sectors of patent activity are semiconductors, multiplex communications, drug compositions and biotechnology.
First, as the report itself noted, issued patents in 2008 reflect patent filings made in 2005 and 2006, if not earlier. While it is true that the applicant always has the option of abandoning the application, issuance data has an historical aspect to it which makes extrapolation to the present and future problematic. This especially is when the application period for these issued patents has been followed by the worst recession in a half of century. Under such circumstances, the nexus between patent applications made then and innovation and technology here and now, and here and in the future, is clouded at best.
Second, what do we make of the emphasis on national patent issuance statistics? If we observe, even anecdotally, the five countries that lead the list--U.S., Japan and Germany, South Korea, and Taiwan--one hardly finds reinforcement for the notion that patent activity is a clear indicator (correlative, causal, or both) of successful economic activity. Maybe the largest multinationals are simply better, or at least better placed, at the patent filing business than smaller companies, or companies in other countries? Maybe the result of the patent activity of the multinationals continues to be Rembrandts in the Attic, maybe not. The IFI data do not seem to be of much assistance in providing an answer (more on the issue of the national identity of inventors and issued patents in a subsequent blog posting.)
Third, we note that there do not appear to be any representatives of any of the BRIC countries on the list of the "Top 35." We recognize that the BRIC countries themselves appear to diverge significantly between themselves regarding the role of patents in their national economies (without any intended slight, patents seem more central in China and India than in Brazil and Russia). That said, the emphasis on the patent activity of the major multinationals would seem to hide potentially significant patent activity in at least some of the BRIC countries.
I would like to think that I am not naive, and that I recognise full well that the relationship between patents (and IP more generally), innovation and economic activity is devilishly multi- factored. Still, I wonder how much utility there is in providing national and multinational scorecard information. When I was 10-years old, I bought into the notion that I could not distinguish the ball players of my beloved Cleveland Indians without a scorecard. I am not convinced that I find value in the present-day patent equivalent.