Invented in China

February 2, 2012

For years China has acted as the assembly line of the world’s great ideas. Apple’s iPhone, invented and developed in Cupertino, is assembled in China. The same can be said for the great technolgies invented in Seattle by Microsoft and Amazon, or Nokia’s handsets conceived in Espoo, Finland. And while the names Steve Jobs and Thomas Edison carry weight around the globe, most Americans would be hard pressed to name a single famous Chinese inventor.

That all may be changing, however, thanks to a concerted effort by the Chinese government to invest in invention. The goal is to quickly move from a “Made in China” economy to an “Invented in China” economy, accomplished through ambitious annual benchmarks for the number of patents filed in China, the number of Chinese patents filed abroad, even the number of Chinese patent examiners and the size of the Chinese patent office. The metrics are staggering – 2 million patents filed annually by 2015 (the U.S. filed around 500,000 last year) and double the number of patent examiners – and the results are already taking shape.

In fact, according to a recent report by Thomson Reuters, China is already the world’s most prolific patent filer, surpassing perennial leaders Japan and the United States in 2011, and more than doubling its patent output from 2006-2010. In contrast, the U.S. has remained nearly stagnant over that same period, with growth of only a few percentage points.

But what does this mean? Many contend that China is taking a shotgun approach to innovation, emphasizing quantity over quality and metrics over a true nationwide commitment. For example, China’s reported numbers include “utility-models,” intellectual property covering incremental inventions which are generally considered less ambitious and less stringent than the patents recognized by the United States. 

The return on China’s investment will become evident in time, but when the world’s second-leading economy makes such a bold investment in invention, the rest of the world takes notice. China has made a clear, long-term commitment to intellectual property, and has recognized that invention must be incentivized, be it in the private market like we’re working to do at Intellectual Ventures, or at the state level. And it affirms that IP is not only a strategic asset for businesses, but a centerpiece in China’s ambitious agenda to reshape its role in the global economy.

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