31 October 2022

So I started a (Second) PhD. Here’s Why.

Melbourne University (South Lawn)As long-time readers will be aware, it was almost exactly six years ago that I announced that I was leaving my job as a patent attorney with Watermark (which has since disappeared after being ‘integrated’ into Griffith Hack) to pursue other, vaguely articulated, interests.  Since then I have operated as an independent IP consultant.  I have undertaken some ‘traditional’ patent attorney tasks, including patent drafting and prosecution, continuing to work with some of my colleagues and clients from the Watermark days, as well as a few new ones along the way.  But I have also had the opportunity to engage in a range of projects that simply would not have been open to me within an attorney firm environment, including working with IP Australia on the IP Government Open Data (IPGOD) releases in 2018 and 2019, assisting a university research group with patent mapping and developing/documenting an IP strategy for a major grant application, and consulting to investment analysts on the Australian market for IP services. 

Some of the most interesting work I have been involved in over the past few years has come about as a result of the software tools that I have developed for processing and analysing Australian (and New Zealand) patent data, and the many articles I have published here making use of those tools.  I have also dabbled in machine learning (ML) and natural language processing (NLP) technology, using techniques from these fields for ‘fuzzy’ matching of entity names in patent data and for distinguishing between individual and corporate names in unstructured data (both of which were employed in my work on IPGOD, and are in use every day in my automated patent data updates), as well as in more speculative applications such as classifying provisional applications into technology fields based only on published titles.

A couple of years ago I started thinking about some important, but difficult, problems in patent law and policy that might be addressed using some of these kinds of technology.  For example, what if we want to measure the effect of different patent laws and examination processes in different jurisdictions?  The Australian government’s Productivity Commission thought this was a relevant consideration in its 2016 report on the nation’s intellectual property arrangements, recommending (among other things) that the legal test for inventive step should be modified (yet again – after it had only been adjusted in 2013) to bring Australia more closely into line with Europe.  IP Australia’s initial efforts to implement this recommendation have been abortive, and with the recent change in government seem likely to fall by the wayside altogether.

Have PCT Filings from Australia Been Affected by the Pandemic?

Analysing data In 2021, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic during which Australia’s two most populous cities spent long weeks under conditions of strict lockdown, the number of Australian standard patent applications filed by Australian resident applicants jumped by over 25%, to levels unseen since a rush on filings prompted by the Raising the Bar patent law reforms in 2013.  While there may have been a number of contributing factors, including the phase-out of the second tier innovation patent system in August 2021, it is nonetheless fair to say that there was no indication of any downturn in Australian filings as a result of the pandemic.

So what about international applications under the Patent Cooperation Treaty (PCT)?  Filing a PCT application is generally a more costly exercise than filing a domestic application, and usually signals the applicant’s intent to proceed with national applications in multiple countries.  Therefore the number of PCT applications filed might be a better indicator of the economic impact of the pandemic on innovative Australian businesses and institutions.  Unfortunately, information about a PCT application does not usually become publicly available until 18 months after the initial priority date which, in turn, is anywhere between six and 18 months after the PCT application itself was filed.  As a result, it is only recently that it has become possible to observe any impact of the pandemic on PCT filings.

In this article, I present data on PCT filings by Australian resident applicants that have been published up until the end of August 2022, with numbers extrapolated for the full 2022 calendar year.  What the data shows is that there has been no substantial effect, either positive or negative, on the total number of PCT applications filed annually by Australian residents since the start of the pandemic.  Drilling down to the fields of technology covered by the applications filed, there are a number of ongoing trends that predate the pandemic.  For example, applications relating to IT methods for management and civil engineering have continued pre-existing declines, while pharmaceuticals appear to be experiencing a period of growth.  The one field in which there may be a specific pandemic-related effect is medical technology (e.g. devices and instruments), in which the number of published PCT applications has notably increased since 2020.

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