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2020 in Review – Filing Trends at the EPO


23rd Apr 2021

Earlier last month, we reported on the record number of international patent applications filed under the Patent Cooperation Treaty (PCT) with the World Intellectual Property Office. This record high comes despite the Covid-19 pandemic dominating lives and businesses worldwide.

Those statistics are complemented by the release of the Patent Index 2020 – patent filing statistics at the European Patent Office (EPO). The annual Patent Index allows for both a general assessment of innovation, and a deeper analysis into filing trends within Europe.

Filings Holding Steady

A message stressed by the EPO is that patent filings have remained steady in 2020, with a decrease in filings of just -0.7% when compared to 2019. This appears to signify a pause in the rise of innovation, coming after 3 consecutive years of at least +4% increases in filing numbers.

However, this headline figure does mask an important trend. Filed applications originating from EPO member states have decreased by -1.3%, and those originating from the US by -4.1%. These slumps have been offset by significant increases from China and South Korea of +9.9% and +9.1% respectively.

The below graph shows these variations in filing numbers for select nations.

Figure 1: Percentage change for patent applications filed at the EPO from 2019 to 2020, sorted by country of application origin.

Going further and looking back to previous years, since 2016 we see an average increase per year of + 17% filings originating from China. In comparison, EPO member states and the US have averaged +2%  and +2.5% increases in filings per year respectively over the same period. The figures from 2020 represent an overall slowing in the trend of increasing filing numbers at the EPO, with the uncertainty that Covid-19 brought being a likely cause. Notable outlier countries to buck this trend however include South Korea, exceeding their 5-year average growth of +8%, and France, whose filing numbers have been holding steady at +0.2% average yearly growth over the same period.

In comparison to PCT filings where China has led the way worldwide for the past two years, Chinese and South Korean applicants currently contribute only 7% and 5% respectively of total European applications filed. Applicants from EPO member states continue to dominate the filing numbers contributing 45% of total European applications filed. Therefore at this rate, it is likely a long while before we will see Chinese or South Korean applicants leading patent filings in Europe.

Variation by Technical Field

The annual EPO Patent Index also allows for us to view patent trends by technical field.

The EPO surmised that the Covid-19 pandemic has hit industry hard, and as a result patent trends have changed. Investment into pharmaceuticals and biotechnology IP rose, showing filing numbers have grown by +10.2% and +6.3% respectively, perhaps as a response to the fresh challenges that have arisen in 2020. On the flipside, as airports worldwide saw flight numbers tumble, transport related filings were down -5.5%.

Whilst this impact may be as a result of the pandemic, we can again look at the statistics from previous years to build a bigger picture of these filing trends.

The graph below shows the number of applications in some selected categories filed at the EPO by year.

Figure 2: Select categories of patent applications filed at the EPO by year since 2011.

This puts these 2020 growth and fall figures into context. Whilst transport filings may be down, they still remain at levels seen in 2018, and show overall growth at over +45% in the last 9 years. Additionally, sectors such as pharmaceuticals and medical technology show that the 2020 increase is part of a much more significant long-term upward filing trend. For example, the pharmaceutical sector has shown an average increase of +10% per year since 2016 – very much on par with the 2020 increase.

Elsewhere, computer technology filings continue to boom, and digital communication filings have fallen only marginally from a very sharp increase in 2019. Together they now represent over 15% of total patent applications filed, a significant increase from just 11% back in 2016.

The EPO is correct to suggest that the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic can be seen in this year’s statistics, but overall filing trends remain relatively undisturbed and very much on an upward trajectory.  The impact of the pandemic may not be as significant as people had expected. This is likely due to the fact that patent filings are a long-term investment, and that businesses understand that a strong and consistently updated IP portfolio is crucial to their success. It will be interesting to see if by next year the select rises and falls in specific fields such as pharmaceuticals and transport are a sign of longer-term priority changes in industry, or simply short-lived and immediate responses to the pandemic.

If you would like to discuss the how filing a European patent application could benefit you or your business, or for more information about patent applications and other forms of intellectual property protection, please contact us.

This article is for general information only. Its content is not a statement of the law on any subject and does not constitute advice. Please contact Reddie & Grose LLP for advice before taking any action in reliance on it

Author
Joseph Duffy
Assistant
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Would you like to know more? You can talk to Joseph Duffy who will be able to help. Call + 44 (0)1223 360 350

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