Jack Ellis

New research indicates that the UK has the world’s most successful fast-track programme for examining greentech patent applications. Reported by the IP Watch blog, the findings show that British entrepreneurs and businesses do consider it a strategic priority to obtain patents, despite global filing statistics suggesting otherwise.

The preliminary findings of research commissioned by the International Centre for Trade and Sustainable Development (ICTSD) – based on data from seven issuing offices, as well as interviews with patent applicants – show that the UK Intellectual Property Office (UKIPO) has fast-tracked 776 green patents since it introduced an expedited examination scheme for environmentally beneficial inventions in May 2009. Proportionally, that amounts to 20% of all the green patent applications received by the UKIPO per year, IP Watch reports. By comparison, the office with the next largest proportion of fast-tracked greentech patents is the United States Patent & Trademark Office (USPTO), which has accelerated 3,500 applications under its own green fast-track programme – meaning only 8% of US inventors in this field opt for the programme each year. After the USPTO comes the Canadian Intellectual Property Office, which has fast-tracked 67 applications, proportional to 1.6% of annual green patent examinations. (It should be noted that the UK fast-track was introduced earliest, with the US programme following later in 2009 and Canada’s in 2011.)

While these preliminary findings don’t give us any detail about the quality of the applications or the innovation they protect, the data collected from interviews with patentees suggests that inventors tend to select the technologies they believe to have the highest potential for commercialisation when opting for expedited examination. This means that fast-tracked patents have a higher chance of ending up as the most valuable assets in a company’s patent portfolio. Furthermore, the findings indicate that fast-tracked green patents receive almost twice as many citations as those which have not had prioritised examination.

There are clear advantages to getting a patent fast-tracked. If a patent is granted earlier, then its owner can get to work commercialising their invention or licensing it to others to do the same. Having a patent in the bank also increases the chances of securing funding from investors.

The news comes as a ray of sunshine for the UK’s intangible economy. Earlier this year, the SME Innovation Alliance suggested that a 25% decline in applications in the UK over the past decade signifies a “failing patent system”; while one inventor felt compelled to burn his patent certificate outside the Houses of Parliament in protest at what he claimed to be the prohibitive costs of enforcing his rights. In October, a report from the All-Party Parliamentary IP Group acknowledged the UKIPO to be “an efficient registration body for rights” but raised concerns that it has “insufficient influence within other government departments” (ie, outside the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills), and that its policy making function “has lost the confidence of a large number of its key stakeholders”.

As IAM has previously reported, British businesses haven’t exactly led the field recently when it comes to filing for patent protection elsewhere in the world, either. Figures from the European Patent Office (EPO) show that European patent applications from British entities fell by 9.4% between 2010 and 2011. Unilever was the only British company to be represented in the top 50 corporate applicants at the EPO in 2011 – in 49th place. It is a similar story in the US, where only 2% of patent grants went to British companies in 2011; and in China, where the UK fell far behind other EU countries in terms of applications.

Given all that, the popularity of the UK’s prioritised examination initiative is somewhat reassuring in that it shows that British entrepreneurs do place importance on obtaining patents and are aware of their strategic value. But fast-tracking aside, it appears that UK businesses often feel that the trials and tribulations they face in getting protection simply aren’t worth their while. It is an issue that those in charge of the IP system in this country should pay close attention to.