Mining Resources Industry Patenting Statistics and IP Issues

This article first appeared in The Watermark Journal Vol 23 No 2 (June 2006)

The Australian mining and resources industry is a long-established industry with an emerging technology base and is a global leader in several specialist areas, including software applications for the mining and mineral industries.

This focus on innovation and on mining ‘smarter’ is in accord with the industry’s drive for best practice in all aspects of its operations.

Australia’s resources assets are immense and historically the mining and resources industry has provided important export income for the Australian economy. However, owning what is in the ground may be of lesser value to the economy than the knowledge and ability of how to extract and exploit these assets. To gain the full benefit of these technology assets the mining and resources industry would be well advised to place particular importance on the ability to obtain and protect intellectual property (IP) rights, in particular patent rights.

Since 2000, the total number of patents filed in all industries in Australia has continued to grow from around 22,000 to over 24,000 patents per year. Table 1 (overleaf) shows the total number of patents filed from 2000 through to 2006 for the mining and resources industry. When compared against the total number of patents filed in Australia the mining and resources industry equates to less than 8% of the total yearly filed patents in Australia. For an industry which produces $55 billion dollars in export revenue each year, a disproportionately small investment is made in formal IP protection.

As shown in table 2, in 2005 the majority of the patents filed relate to the process of extracting commodities from the ground and their subsequent processing. While the extraction and exploitation of the commodity is important in the mining and resources industry, it may be that the industry is not fully realising their competitive advantage through under-utilisation of IP protection mechanisms.

Management in the mining and resources industry may assume that their and innovative technology developments are kept secret and are treated as confidential information. However, there is a tendency in the industry to allow a free flow of information. Therefore something that occurs on a mine site today may well be known on a competing mine site tomorrow. Allowing a free flow of information may result in a failure to take full advantage of key IP. There is also the mind set that traditionally, IP has not been important or relevant to the mining and resources industry and companies have tended to allow IP assets to dissipate.

For example, the processes and treatment of ores can be very site specific, so for a copper or base metal ore in Mount Isa, the processes and treatment of the ore can be very different from those in the Northern Territory or Western Australia. So the process for extracting metals from the ores is significantly different and therefore the IP developed becomes site specific. However, as advancements in technology occur, the technology now allows for processes that can be adapted to multiple sites.

The transient nature of contract workers in the industry tends also to lead to an uncontrolled flow of information if confidentiality agreements are poor or absent, or if no agreements are in place as to who owns what IP, the IP can also dissipate.

These problems generally stem from an incomplete understanding of IP and how it should be protected. However, some mining companies have embraced the idea of licensing their technology to others and have found that process patents can be valuable assets and are thus becoming more important, with a significant number of mining systems and processes used internationally emanating from Australia.

To maintain a competitive advantage it is important that the industry as a whole understands its IP protection options, and works more effectively to fully exploit the value of IP to protect returns on Australian R&D investment. Watermark would advocate that action be taken to raise the level of awareness and understanding of IP, in individual companies and in the industry as a whole.

The definition we have applied to the Mining and Resources Industry consists of the minerals sector and the petroleum sector. The minerals sector includes metallic, non-metallic and industrial minerals, gemstones, and certain energy minerals including coal and uranium. The petroleum sector includes crude oil, condensate, natural gas, sales gas, methane, liquefied petroleum gas (LPG), liquefied natural gas (LNG), ethane, and carbon dioxide. We have however excluded heavy equipment and tools from this definition as it would have proved difficult to identify patents specifically related to the mining and resources industry.
The data used in this document comes form IP Australia, IP Australia provides individual data on all complete patent applications filed in Australia in a calendar year. IP Australia does not have complete data for 2006 due to the inherent delays in the PCT system.

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