03 May 2022

Attorney Code of Conduct Passes ‘Health Check’ with Flying Colours

Health Check The Trans-Tasman IP Attorneys Board (TTIPAB) has published a report, and its response, on a Health Check of the Code of Conduct for Trans-Tasman Patent and Trade Marks Attorneys 2018 [PDF, 2.05MB].  The Report was prepared by Professor Andrew Christie, who was commissioned by the Board to conduct the review, commencing in July 2021.  The ‘health check’ covers not only the Code of Conduct, which is a statutory instrument by which all registered patent and trade marks attorneys are bound, but also the Guidelines to the Code of Conduct [PDF, 95kB].  The Guidelines are non-binding and are intended to assist people to understand the Code and the conduct it covers.  The purpose  of the review was to confirm whether the Code was working as intended, and to identify any improvements or clarification to the Code and Guidelines.  The review process included conducting structured interviews with 26 stakeholders (attorneys, general counsel of listed groups, representatives of attorney professional associations, and clients).  The interview questions were based on an analysis of issues raised by complaints made to the Board over the past few years.

The headline outcome of the ‘health check’ is that no amendments to the Code of Conduct were found to be necessary.  More particularly, Professor Christie concluded that the Code ‘has no major deficiencies, and there are no major problems with its provisions’.  He found, however, that ‘there is significant scope to provide more guidance on the application of the Code’s provisions by enhancement of the Guidelines.’  The Board has accepted a number of recommendations for specific improvements to the Guidelines.

Other key observations of the Report include:

  1. most stakeholders have a satisfactory awareness and understanding of the Code, and of the Board, but there is scope for improvement among junior attorneys and clients that do not have a registered attorney on staff;
  2. firms within the two publicly listed ownership groups provide appropriate disclosure to clients of their group membership, however individual firms (as opposed to the holding companies) need to improve the clarity with which they disclose the identities of other firms within their group;
  3. the evidence is that firms within ownership groups act independently from other members of their group in the provision of attorney professional services, as required under the Code;
  4. there is no basis to believe that attorneys in ownership group firms are in breach of their core obligations under the Code (i.e. to place following the law, and the interests of clients, the public and the profession, ahead of other considerations, including the interests of shareholders);
  5. clients of firms in ownership groups are being appropriately informed when their consent is required for firms within the same ownership group to act on opposing sides in adversarial matters; and
  6. some dissatisfaction with the Board’s complaint handling process has been identified within the profession.

The Board has identified and responded to 34 recommendations in the Report.  Ten of these are recommendations for no action to be taken, which the Board has merely ‘noted’ (there being nothing for it to do).  Of the remainder, the Board has ‘accepted’ 17 recommendations for enhancements to the Guidelines.  The Board has also ‘noted’ six substantive recommendations, where it recognises that a relevant issues has been raised, but proposes to pursue a different course from that which has been recommended.  Finally, there is one recommendation, relating to specific circumstances around potential conflicts of interest, that the Board has ‘not accepted’ because of concerns that it ‘would introduce unnecessary complexity and ambiguity’ to the Code.

I do not intend to go through every recommendation in detail – anybody who is that interested (which should include all registered attorneys) can read the Report and Response!  However, I would like to highlight the points that caught my attention, and add a little of my own commentary.

27 April 2022

Upcoming Online Conference on ‘Inventorship in Patent Law’

EPO LogoOn Monday 16 May 2022 the European Patent Office (EPO) is running an online conference on ‘Inventorship in Patent Law’.  It commences at 1.30pm Central European Summer Time (CEST), which is 9.30pm on the east coast of Australia (AEST), 9.00pm in South Australia, and a positively civilised 7.30pm in Western Australia.  It is, unfortunately, a little less accessible to people in New Zealand, where it will be 11.30pm.  The total running time is two hours and forty minutes, so the event will finish a little after midnight here in Melbourne.

I am promoting the conference because I will be participating on a panel discussing the DABUS ‘AI inventor’ decisions in various jurisdictions.  It is not in doubt that I will be the least illustrious of the panellists.  The other participants are:

  1. Wolfgang Sekretaruk, who is Chairman of the Legal Board of Appeal of the EPO, Deputy of the President of the Boards of Appeal and Head of the Legal Services of the Boards of Appeal, and will be discussing the EPO decisions on the DABUS applications;
  2. Professor Duncan Matthews, of the Queen Mary, University of London School of Law, who will be discussing the UK decisions;
  3. Professor Dr jur. Ansgar Ohly, of the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, and the University of Oxford Faculty of Law, who will be discussing the German case; and
  4. Professor Dan L Burk of the University of California, Irvine, who will be discussing the US case.

I will, of course, be talking about the position in Australia – which is arguably the most interesting, given that we were the only country to (briefly) recognise DABUS as a legitimate inventor.

Our session of the conference will comprise a series of brief (10 minute) presentations on the position in each jurisdiction, followed by a 30 minute panel discussion.

Prior to the panel session, there will be a 20 minute presentation from Axel Voss, Member of the European Parliament, on the European approach to AI.  This will be followed by an introduction to the DABUS applications by the EPO’s Heli Pihlajamaa as a lead-in to the panel.

The panel session will be followed by a presentation on ‘the right to a patent, its origins and the consequences of the fundamental principle that the right to the patent is originally vested with the inventor’ from Martin Stierle, Associate Professor in Intellectual Property Law at the Faculty of Law, Economics and Finance at the University of Luxembourg.

The conference is free of charge, however registration is required in order to obtain the link to the online session (via Zoom).  Registered trans-Tasman patent attorneys should be able to claim 2.5 CPE hours for attendance at the full event.

DABUS Exited with Fatal Exception: Human Agency Required in Development of an Invention

System ErrorIn a decision handed down on 13 April 2022, a panel of five judges of the Federal Court of Australia (‘Full Court’) overturned last year’s controversial ruling by Justice Jonathan Beach, determining that the (alleged) ‘AI inventor’ DABUS cannot be named as an inventor for the purposes of applying for a patent in Australia, and that the law requires the inventor to be a natural person or persons: Commissioner of Patents v Thaler [2022] FCAFC 62 (‘Thaler FC’).  Regular readers of this blog will recall that I tentatively predicted this outcome after observing the Full Court hearing earlier this year.  As it turns out, I need not have been so tentative in my prediction.  The decision of the appeals court was fast, unanimous and unequivocal.

The Full Court has taken a conventional approach to determining the meaning of the term ‘inventor’ in the Patents Act 1990, observing (at [83]) that ‘[t]he duty to resolve an issue of statutory construction is a text-based activity’ and that while it is ‘appropriate to consider policy considerations … the surest guide to ascertaining the legislative intention is the language of the text of the legislation itself’.  In the absence of an express definition of ‘inventor’ in the Patents Act, the Court turned its attention to the legislative history, and the overall statutory context, with particular (though not exclusive) reference to the provisions regarding entitlement to the grant of a patent set out in section 15(1) of the Act. 

The Court found (at [105]) that:

…the law relating to the entitlement of a person to the grant of a patent is premised upon an invention for the purposes of the Patents Act arising from the mind of a natural person or persons. Those who contribute to, or supply, the inventive concept are entitled to the grant. The grant of a patent for an invention rewards their ingenuity.

As to whether Dr Thaler, as the owner of DABUS and the person responsible for its creation and operation, could be entitled to the grant of a patent naming the AI machine as inventor, the Full Court found (at [113]) that:

It is not to the point that Dr Thaler may have rights to the output of DABUS. Only a natural person can be an inventor for the purposes of the Patents Act and Regulations. Such an inventor must be identified for any person to be entitled to a grant of a patent under ss 15(1)(b)-(d).

The Court also observed (at [115]) that while ‘the development of patent law since 1624 has not until now been confronted with the question of whether or not an inventor may be other than a natural person’, the law has ‘proceeded on the assumption that only a natural person could be an inventor’.  This includes the key High Court decisions in National Resource Development Corporation v Commissioner of Patents [1959] HCA 67 (‘NRDC’) and D’Arcy v Myriad Genetics Inc [2015] HCA 35 (‘Myriad’), in which the Court proceeded on the basis – as the Full Court put it at [116] – that ‘human agency was required in the development of the invention in suit’.

In criticising the approach taken by the primary judge, the Full Court stated (at [120]) that ‘the Court must be cautious about approaching the task of statutory construction by reference to what it might regard as desirable policy, imputing that policy to the legislation, and then characterising that as the purpose of the legislation.’  Furthermore, the Full Court noted (at [121]) that the case was decided subject to the agreed facts that DABUS was an inventor and that Dr Thaler was not, but that ‘the characterisation of a person as an inventor is a question of law’ and ‘[t]he question of whether the application the subject of this appeal has a human inventor has not been explored in this litigation and remains undecided.’ 

The decision brings Australia back into line with other jurisdictions, including the US, the UK, Germany, the European Patent Office and Taiwan, where the naming of a machine as inventor has been found to be incompatible with patent laws.  However, Dr Thaler’s legal avenues are not yet exhausted in Australia.  In an email to Law360 (paywalled, unfortunately) Professor Ryan Abbott (whose Artificial Inventor Project is the true driving force behind the DABUS patent applications and court cases) has confirmed that they ‘plan to seek leave to appeal’ to the High Court.  I am going to be less tentative this time, and predict that the High Court will deny any application for special leave.  The Full Court’s decision is plainly correct, and any amendment of the law to permit non-human inventors is now a matter for legislators, following appropriate public consultation and consideration of the full consequences of such a development.

Read on for a more detailed analysis of the Full Court’s decision.

31 March 2022

Patent Examination Delays are Rising at IP Australia

RisingIn my previous article I presented some data on Australian standard patent application prosecution events between 2017 and 2021.  While the total number of events (examination requests, examination reports, responses and acceptances) has remained fairly consistent in recent years, the data shows that the number of examination requests filed each year has increased since 2019, but that the number of first examination reports issued remained steady in 2019 and 2020, and fell in 2021.  All else being equal, this would suggest that the number of cases awaiting examination would have grown over this period, and therefore that the response time – i.e. the delay between an examination request being filed and a first examination report being issued – would be increasing.  So I decided to check this by analysing the delays for all initial examination reports issued since 2010.

Sure enough, what I have found is that the median delay has grown from just under seven months in 2019, to just over 11 months for examination reports issued so far in 2022 (although, being early in the year, this most recent data point is preliminary and may not be reliable).  At the same time, however, the 85th percentile has remained fairly stable, rising from just under 11.5 months in 2019 to slightly over 12 months so far in 2022.  The 85th percentile is significant, because IP Australia has a service level commitment to issue first reports on applications for standard patents within 12 months of receiving the request for examination, and to meet this commitment 85% of the time.  (At least, it used to have this target, although I have been unable to find a Customer Service Charter Report any more recent than the April-June 2020 quarter that still reports against this particular target.)  It appears, therefore, that despite an overall increase in examination response time for a ‘typical’ case, IP Australia is (just about) maintaining its targeted performance overall.

Even so, with what presently appears to be a growing backlog of applications awaiting examination, and a bumper year of new filings in 2021, it could become increasingly challenging for IP Australia to keep response times under control without increasing its patent examination capacity.  Furthermore, IP Australia’s own reporting indicates that some fields of technology – particularly chemistry, pharmaceuticals, and biotechnology – are experiencing greater delays than others, and falling well short of its targets.  IP Australia is not currently hiring new examiners, and the Australian budget papers released this week show no projected increase in average staffing numbers in the 2022-23 fiscal year.  But it will at least need to replace any staff who might leave.  And the March 2022 edition of its What’s New at IP Australia email bulletin (to which you can subscribe here) invited interested readers to register their interest in examination positions, to be notified when new vacancies are advertised.  Now might be a good time to register, particularly for prospective candidates with a background in chemistry, pharmaceuticals, or biotechnology.

30 March 2022

Who Were The Leading Australian Patent Prosecution Firms in 2021?

Running raceWith significant increases in both standard and (especially) innovation patent applications, 2021 should have been a bumper year for patent attorneys operating in Australia.  And although that was true overall, the benefits were not uniformly distributed.  While some smaller firms experienced gains in filing numbers well above the overall growth rate, a number of larger firms within the publicly-listed ownership groups struggled to keep pace.  Spruson & Ferguson remained the biggest filer of new applications – particularly following integration of the Shelston IP business – but achieved virtually no overall growth in new filings.  The number of applications filed by third-placed Griffith Hack actually fell in 2021, with the firm narrowly avoiding falling behind fourth-placed FB Rice.

Having a focus on incoming work from foreign applicants, Spruson & Ferguson filed only marginally more new standard patent applications on behalf of Australian residents than its closest competitors, Davies Collison Cave and Griffith Hack.  About half of all filings handled by Spruson & Ferguson originated in the US, slightly above the overall proportion of 45% Australian standard applications by US applicants.  A handful of firms – particularly RnB IP, Pizzeys, and FPA Patent Attorneys – rely far more heavily on US-originating work, while Madderns is notable for handling a higher proportion of filings from China than from the US.

Looking beyond filings to ongoing patent prosecution work, Spruson & Ferguson was the leader in 2021, by a large margin.  Generally speaking, firms with larger numbers of filings over the previous few years had more prosecution work in 2021, which was an advantage for Spruson & Ferguson and Griffith Hack despite their failure to keep pace with their competitors in terms of growth in new filings.  The flip side of this, of course, is that relatively lower filing numbers in 2021 will result in less prosecution work over the coming years.

Read on for all the details.

24 March 2022

Federal Appeals Court Affirms the Role of ‘Balance’ in Scheme for Extending Term of Pharmaceutical Patents

Balance On 18 March 2022, the Full Court of the Federal Court of Australia issued decisions relating to term extensions of patents covering pharmaceutical products: Commissioner of Patents v Ono Pharmaceutical Co. Ltd [2022] FCAFC 39 (‘Ono’); and Merck Sharp & Dohme Corp. v Sandoz Pty Ltd [2022] FCAFC 40 (‘MSD’).  The two decisions have (at least) three things in common.  First, both were decided unanimously by a panel comprising Chief Justice Alsop and Justices Yates and Burley.  Second, both found against the patentee, with the court reversing the primary judge’s decision in Ono granting an extension of term, and confirming the primary judge’s decision in MSD nullifying a previously granted extension of term.  And, third, both referred to the principle set out in the objects clause (section 2A) of the Patents Act 1990 that ‘the patent system balances over time the interests of producers, owners and users of technology and the public’ (emphasis added).

The scheme for extending the term of pharmaceutical patents inherently involves a balancing act.  Its primary purpose is to ensure that patentees are not excessively disadvantaged by delays in securing regulatory approval to market patented products.  For example, if a drug is not approved for use until 10 years or more after a patent application is filed, the patentee may have less than half of the standard 20 year patent term remaining to compensate for its investment in discovery and development before becoming exposed to generic competition.  On the other hand, an extended period without competition necessarily exposes the wider public to higher costs of medical treatment.  In an effort to balance these competing interests, the relatively complex provisions of the Patents Act aim to ensure that a ‘typical’ pharmaceutical patentee benefits from up to 15 years of exclusivity, by granting extensions of the patent term of up to five years, i.e. to a maximum of 25 years from filing.  (A 2013 review of pharmaceuticals patents – which the government initially declined to release – found that 53% of such patents have an effective life of 15 years, while 89% have an effective life of over 10 years.)

The primary provisions of the Patents Act governing extensions of patent term are:

  1. section 70, which sets out the conditions that must be satisfied before a patentee can apply for an extension of the term of its patent;
  2. section 71, which sets time limits for filing of applications for extensions of term; and
  3. section 77, which specifies how the duration of an extension of term is to be calculated. 

In each of Ono and MSD, the patentee sought to obtain an advantage, or avoid disadvantage, by arguing for beneficial interpretations of the extension of term provisions.  In each case they failed.  And in both cases the Full Court upheld the principle that the purpose of the extension of term scheme is to balance the competing interests of the patentee of a pharmaceutical substance against the public interest in the unrestricted use of the pharmaceutical invention after expiry of the patent.  In Ono, in particular, the Full Court rejected the proposition that sections 70, 71, and 77 should be construed to achieve a commercial outcome for the patentee.  In MSD the Full Court again invoked the principle of ‘balance’ in declining to permit an extension of term based on a later Australian marketing approval, in circumstances where the patentee had already obtained the benefit of an ‘export only’ approval of a substance falling within its patent claims with an effective life of over 15 years.

The relevance of the Full Court’s focus on balancing of interests, and its references to the objects clause, could extend beyond these cases.  The three judges here are all among the five who recently heard the appeal in the Thaler ‘AI inventor’ case, in which the competing interests of developers and owners of ‘invention machines’, and of the broader public (who might not see the same benefit in granting patent monopolies on automatically-generated inventions), are potentially at stake.  It will be interesting to see whether they adopt a similar approach to weighing up the balance of interests in that case, also.

08 March 2022

Australian Appeals Court Seems Sceptical of Push to Name DABUS ‘AI’ as Inventor

I am not a robotOn 9 February 2022, the appeal by the Commissioner of Patents against the decision of Justice Beach finding that the ‘AI’ machine known as DABUS (‘Device for the Autonomous Bootstrapping of Unified Sentience’) could be named as inventor on a patent application filed by Dr Stephen Thaler, was heard before an expanded Full Bench of the Federal Court of Australia.  The five-judge panel comprised Chief Justice Allsop, and Justices Nicholas, Yates, Moshinsky and Burley.  The appointment of an expanded panel (three judges is usual), including the Chief Justice, is notable, and suggests that the court considers the question of whether a machine can be an inventor for the purposes of the Patents Act 1990 to be one of particular legal importance.  The case was argued for Dr Thaler by David Shavin QC (who also appeared at first instance), and for the Commissioner of Patents by Sophie Goddard SC (appearing for the first time in this matter).  Hamish Bevan (who represented the Commissioner at first instance) argued the Commissioner’s case in reply.  The proceedings were conducted via video conference, and I observed online.

I think that it is fair to say that Dr Thaler did not experience such a smooth ride on appeal as he did at first instance.  Where Justice Beach seemed positively enthusiastic about the idea of allowing patent applications to be filed, and patents granted, for inventions autonomously devised by machines, the judges on the Full Bench appeared sceptical of a number of the arguments presented on behalf of Dr Thaler, and at times subjected Mr Shavin to fairly sharp questioning and criticism.  There are some aspects of the original decision that are unlikely to survive the appeal, although Dr Thaler only requires one line of reasoning to stand in order to prevail.

Based on the arguments presented, there are a number of sub-questions that the Full Court may need to decide.  First, there is a question of whether the case is simply about determining the meaning of the word ‘inventor’ as a matter of pure statutory construction, or about deciding whether or not to develop the concept of the inventor according to a common law methodology.  Either way, the court then needs to decide whether or not a non-human, machine inventor should be included.  In doing so, it may need to consider whether non-human inventors are compatible with other provisions of the Act, and in particular with the section that deals with the entitlement to be granted a patent.  A machine cannot possess or assign intellectual property rights, so provisions that most naturally apply to transfers of title between (natural or legal) persons may not necessarily be compatible with ‘AI’ inventors.  Justice Beach found that two different mechanisms specified in the legislation could apply to enable Dr Thaler to claim ownership of patent rights on inventions made by DABUS.  He will need at least one of these to survive the appeal.

There are a number of avenues by which the Commissioner could succeed in her appeal, but by the same token there are multiple opportunities for Dr Thaler’s defence of the appeal to be successful.  It is difficult to predict which lines of reasoning the court may adopt, and indeed it is not unlikely that the judges will hand down multiple concurring and/or dissenting opinions.  On balance, my sense is that the appeal is more likely than not to succeed – perhaps by a majority rather than unanimous judgment.  If so, then Australia will rejoin the many other jurisdictions in which corresponding applications naming DABUS as inventor have been rejected.

The remainder of this article provides a summary of the major arguments presented at the hearing.  It is somewhat lengthy, but considerably less so than the full day spent at the Federal Court!

22 February 2022

Australian Medical/Biotech ‘Patent Box’ Tax Legislation Revealed

Some kind of box On 10 February 2022, the Treasury Laws Amendment (Tax Concession for Australian Medical Innovations) Bill 2022 was introduced to the Australian parliament, and received its first and second readings in the House of Representatives.  The Bill represents the fulfilment of an undertaking in the Federal Government’s 2021 budget to introduce a ‘patent box’ scheme to encourage innovation and commercialisation in the Australian medical and biotechnology sectors.  A ‘patent box’ (the name refers either to an actual box on a form, or to a notional box into which a company allocates a proportion of its income) is a tax incentive scheme under which income that can be directly attributed to the commercialisation of patented technology (as distinct from other attributes, such as branding, know-how, or manufacturing capability) is taxed at a reduced rate. 

Under the scheme established by the legislation, the minimum concessional tax rate is 17%, compared with the normal corporate tax rate of 30% for large companies, or 25% for small and medium enterprises (SMEs).  However, the full benefit of the scheme is only available to the extent that R&D leading to development of a patented invention is conducted in Australia.

As the government had indicated in its original budget announcement, only medical and biotechnology inventions will be eligible for the patent box tax concession.  In particular, a patent will be eligible if it is ‘linked’ to a therapeutic good included on the Australian Register of Therapeutic Goods (ARTG).  This means that a product, which is covered wholly or in part by the claims of the patent, must be a therapeutic good (e.g. a pharmaceutical substance or medical device) that requires, and has received, marketing approval in Australia.

Interestingly, however, the patent relied upon as the basis for eligibility under the patent box scheme need not be an Australian patent.  A patent will qualify under the scheme if it is an Australian standard patent (i.e. innovation patents are not eligible), a US utility patent, or a European patent granted under the European Patent Convention (EPC). 

It was initially proposed that only patents having a priority date after the announcement would qualify.  However, in further positive news, according to the Bill patents granted or issued after the date of the budget announcement (11 May 2021) will be eligible.

It is intended that the patent box concession will commence in the coming financial year, i.e. from 1 July 2022.  However, for this to happen the legislation will need to be passed in both houses of parliament before federal election is called.  It is widely anticipated that this will occur in early to mid April, shortly after the government hands down its budget on 29 March 2022.  With no further sitting days scheduled prior to budget week, it could become a race against time to get the legislation through.

11 February 2022

Mea Culpa! Corrections to 2021 Australian Patent Filing Statistics Show a Bigger Bumper Year than Originally Reported

BugfixThis week I discovered an obscure and insidious bug in the code that maintains my Australian patent database.  It has existed for months, but did not manifest itself until January, when I prepared the data for my reports on 2021 patent filings.  The impact was that around 2,000 standard patent applications, or just over 6% of the total, went missing.  These were almost exclusively PCT national phase entry applications, mostly filed by foreign applicants.  I have now fixed the bug, and updated my data.  The two affected articles, Australian Patent Filings Up in 2021, Aided by Innovation Patent’s Demise and Huawei Takes Top Spot in Australian Patent Filings, While Aristocrat Slides Down Rankings (which was originally titled ‘LG Takes Top Spot…’), have been corrected.  The general analysis and observations are substantially unaffected by the corrections, although obviously some of the specific numerical results were wrong.  For those who have already read the original articles, here is an overview of the more significant corrections.

Most notably, the total number of standard patent applications filed in 2021 is higher than I originally reported, at 32,393 rather than 30,343.  This makes last year a new record for Australian filings by an even larger margin than reported!

The ‘missing’ applications were essentially a random sample of the overall PCT national filings, so the corrections do not change the ranking of countries of origin – the top five are still the US, Australia, China, Japan and Germany.  The numbers of filings from the US and Australia grew by more than originally reported, while Chinese originating filings remained steady compared to 2020 (not declining, as reported), Japanese filings fell by less than reported, and German filings grew slightly, rather than declining slightly as reported.

The leading applicants remain largely unchanged, although there have been some changes in ranking due to small corrections in total filing numbers.  LG and Huawei are almost neck-and-neck at the top of the filing table, so it is not hugely surprising that they have swapped places, with Huawei (255 applications) just ahead of LG (251 applications).  My apologies to any LG fans who may have been celebrating the win!

Aristocrat picked up no additional applications in the correction (none of its 2021 filings were based on PCT applications), and its slide down the rankings was therefore slightly greater than originally reported, down to 25th rather than equal 21st place.  It is still the leading Australian resident applicant, by a comfortable margin.

Provisional filing numbers were unaffected by the software bug, while innovation patent filings were negligibly impacted – just 10 applications went missing from a total of 7,653 filed in 2021.

My apologies to anyone who may have relied upon the original data for any reason.

30 January 2022

Huawei the Top Recipient of Australian Patents in 2021, as Total Annual Grants Remain Steady

ApprovedEach January, there is great interest in the leading recipients of US patents issued during the previous year and, in particular, whether IBM will once again retain the leading position it has held for over two decades.  The answer to that question for 2021 is ‘yes’, although the size of IBM’s lead depends upon which data provider you choose to believe.  IFI CLAIMS Patent Services – which has provided an annual summary for many years – has IBM receiving 8,682 US patents in 2021, comfortably ahead of Samsung Electronics on 6,366, followed by Canon with 3,021.  In comparison, Harrity Patent Analytics – which began publishing its own independent reports in recent years – has IBM on 8,540, with Samsung nipping at its heels on 8,517, and both comfortably clear of LG in third spot with 4,368.  (Harrity has Canon in fourth, with 3,400 US patents issued in 2021, while IFI CLAIMS has LG at eighth, on 2,487 US patents.) 

So, who to believe?  My guess is that they are both right-ish – subject to the challenges of correctly identifying and matching applicant and assignee information in the raw USPTO data – but that IFI CLAIMS and Harrity are probably accounting differently for patents granted to related companies, such as subsidiaries and corporate group members.  It is notable that the two largest discrepancies among the top patent recipients are between Samsung and LG, both of which are South Korean chaebol – family conglomerates – which can be notoriously labyrinthine in their structures, and diverse in their product offerings.

I have conducted a corresponding analysis for Australian patent grants in 2021, and while Samsung and LG also both feature among the top recipients, the number one spot goes to China’s Huawei Technologies, which received 193 Australian patents last year.  As far as counting is concerned, I keep things simple – named applicants are treated as the same entity if they have the same name, the same corporate identity, and the same country of residence, otherwise they are different.  The Korean entity LG Electronics Inc placed second, receiving 186 Australian patents, while Samsung Electronics Ltd placed 10th, with 68 patents. 

After Huawei and LG, the top five places were filled out by Qualcomm, Apple, and Adobe – all US entities – with 170, 157, and 103 patents, respectively.

The leading Australian resident patent recipients were the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), with 48 patents (coincidentally, the same as the number of new standard patent applications it filed in 2021) and Aristocrat Technologies, with 47 patents, placing them 23rd and 24th respectively.

In 2021, IP Australia granted 17,155 standard patents.  While the total number of standard patent applications filed has generally increased over the years – from 25,563 in 2011 to 30,343 in 2021 – the number of patents granted has not followed the same trend.  In fact, between 2018 and 2021 there were slightly fewer patents granted each year, on average, than between 2011 and 2013.

US resident entities are by far the largest users of the Australian patent system, receiving 7,629 standard patents in 2021.  Second and third places were taken by China and Japan.  Chinese applicants had the largest growth in patent grants, of nearly 24%, surpassing Japanese applicants, whose total grants fell by 5% in 2021.  Australian residents – despite having consistently been the second largest filers of patent applications – are only the fourth most common recipients of granted patents, reflecting the fact that they are more likely than non-resident applicants to abandon applications before grant. 

Read on for all the facts and figures.

27 January 2022

Huawei Takes Top Spot in Australian Patent Filings, While Aristocrat Slides Down Rankings

2021-2022 SignpostThis article was updated on 11 February 2022 to correct errors in some of the filing numbers.  I have also published a brief explanation and summary of the most significant changes.

After two years on top of Australian patent filing charts – including a remarkable (by Australian standards) 435 applications in 2020 – Chinese telecommunications manufacturer OPPO dropped back to third position in 2021.  Last year’s runner-up, South Korea’s LG Electronics, once again took second place, filing 251 new Australian standard patent applications up from 236 in 2020.  China’s Huawei Technologies moved into the top spot, with 255 new applications, up from 229 in 2020.  Huawei now owns around 1,300 live Australian patents and applications, which is a significant investment for a company that is effectively barred from the Australian market.  It is likely, however, that many of these patents and applications cover standardised mobile and data communications technologies that are implemented across the industry, and which therefore provide Huawei with a substantial stream of licensing income.

The top Australian resident applicant, once again, was electronic gaming system developer Aristocrat Technologies.  However, from a peak of 252 applications filed in 2018, Aristocrat’s filings have declined significantly.  It filed only 72 new standard patent applications in 2021, falling to equal 25th place in the annual ranking.  Over the same period, Aristocrat has been engaged in a Federal Court battle with the Australian Patent Office in an effort to establish the patent-eligibility of many of its gaming-related inventions, recently suffering a setback in the form of a loss on appeal to a Full Bench of the Court.

The leading antipodean applicant is now New Zealand’s Fisher & Paykel Healthcare (which is separate these days from the well-known maker of home appliances).  Fisher & Paykel Healthcare filed 130 Australian standard patent applications in 2021, up from 94 the previous year, to take 7th place in the rankings.  Ironically, the leading filer of New Zealand patent applications in 2021 was Australian medical device manufacturer Resmed, with 142 filings, while Fisher & Paykel Healthcare appears to have no interest in patent protection in its domestic market.  Meanwhile, Resmed followed the opposite trans-Tasman strategy, filing just 28 applications in its home market of Australia.

No other Australian (or New Zealand) applicant appeared in the top 30 filers for 2021.  The next highest Australian applicant, after Aristocrat, was the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), with 52 applications, followed by NewSouth Innovations (the University of New South Wales’ commercialisation arm) on 30.  The Australian top five was rounded out by Resmed (28) and Breville (27).

The top three filers of provisional applications were CSIRO (56), Resmed (51), and NewSouth Innovations (47).

Innovation patent filings were dominated, in the final few months of full operation of the system, by Chinese and Indian applicants, of which the top two were China’s Qingdao Agricultural University, and the delightfully-named Lovely Professional University in India.  The leading ‘credible’ filers of innovation patent applications in 2021 were US-based Calerpillar Inc (31 filings), agricultural chemical developer Imtrade Australia (26 filings), and Australian radio technology company Benelec (14 filings).

Read on for full tables of the leading filers for each application type.

26 January 2022

Australian Patent Filings Up in 2021, Aided by Innovation Patent’s Demise

2021-2022This article was updated on 11 February 2022 to correct errors in some of the filing numbers.  I have also published a brief explanation and summary of the most significant changes.

The number of standard patent applications filed in Australia exceeded 30,000 for the first time in 2021, increasing by more than 10% over the previous year, and following on from two successive years of decline.  Growth came through both direct national filings and PCT national phase entry (NPE) filings.  Standard application filings by Australian residents experienced particularly strong growth, increasing by 26% over 2020 numbers, while applications by foreign residents grew by just over 9%.

At first blush this looks like good news for Australian applicants, and thus for innovation in Australia.  But the headline figures conceal a distorting influence on filing behaviour in 2021, namely the phasing out of the innovation patent system.  It was entirely predictable that thousands of new innovation patent applications would be filed in the weeks leading up to the final deadline of 25 August 2021.  What might have been less obvious is that the beginning-of-the-end of the innovation patent system would also lead to a spike in filings of new standard patent applications.  Australian residents, in particular, filed more than six times as many direct standard applications in August 2021 as compared with a ‘normal’ month, accounting for a significant proportion of the overall growth in resident filings for the year.  All of these applications with a filing date on or before 25 August 2021 are able to provide a basis for future divisional innovation patent filings, for as long as they remain pending, and up to the final expiry date of the innovation patent system on 25 August 2029.

The down side of this boost in Australian resident filings, assuming that they indeed represent applications brought forward to beat the innovation patent deadline, is that we should expect to see a corresponding decline in the coming 12 months, just as we did following introduction of the Raising the Bar patent reforms in 2013.

Provisional filings suffered a further decline – the largest since 2013 – of nearly 12%.  No doubt this can also be attributed at least partly to the phase out of the innovation patent system, with some applicants electing to file an innovation or standard application directly, prior to 26 August 2021, rather than file a provisional application as a basis for a future priority claim.  The 2013 drop in provisional filings was similarly influenced by a desire to get a standard patent application into the system, and request examination, prior to commencement of the Raising the Bar patent law reforms.  But even accounting for these disruptions, provisional filings have been in a general decline for many years, and 2021 looks to be a continuation of that trend.  Provisional applications are filed almost exclusively by Australian residents, so this is not a good sign for the state of innovation and IP protection in Australia.

In a surprising turn of events, the growth in standard filings by Chinese applicants did not continue in 2021.  Following a number of consecutive years of significant growth, I had previously predicted that 2021 could be the year in which filings by Chinese applicants surpassed those of Australian residents.  But the jump in Australian filings combined with flat filings from China to defeat that expectation.  (For now.)

Australians have therefore remained the second largest users of their own patent system, with US residents once again being overwhelmingly the top filers.  Standard applications from the US increased by 11.5% in 2021, following a 1.6% decline in 2020.  Of the other members of the top five countries of origin – China, Japan, and Germany – only Japan experienced a decline in 2021.

But enough with the summary – let’s look at some charts and tables!

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