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Appetite for tech patents highlighted by EPO data

New data that shows that a record number of patent applications were filed at the European Patent Office (EPO) last year highlights the importance of innovation to technology companies, an expert in patent law has said.

Sarah Taylor of Pinsent Masons was commenting after the EPO announced that 188,600 applications were filed for European patents in 2021, up 4.5% on the previous year.

Almost a third of the applications were “ICT-related filings”, with a rise recorded in the number of patent applications for digital communication, medical technology and computer technology – the three most common fields for European patent applications. There were further increases in the number of European patent applications in the fields of pharmaceuticals and biotechnology last year too.

“Technology is ubiquitous in today’s world of business and this, together with the value businesses place on innovation, is reflected in the steady rise in the number of European patent applications filed each year over the last decade and the record number of filings reported in 2021,” Taylor said.

“Developments in communications technology continue to be a significant driver behind the record numbers, but the data also shows how the focus of innovation and investment has grown in other areas such as medtech and computer technology. This reflects the potential of technology to support advancements in healthcare as well as the growing importance of data to all businesses and the resultant demand for processing power and new tools, such as AI systems, to make sense of that information quickly. It is no surprise, against this backdrop, that the businesses that made the top 10 for number of European patent applications filed last year are all technology companies,” she said.

Huawei, Samsung, LG, Ericsson, Siemens, Raytheon Technologies, Qualcomm, Sony, Royal Philips and Robert Bosch comprised the top 10 European patent applicants, filing more than 20,000 patent applications in 2021 between them.

Huawei, the top filer of European patent applications, is a Chinese company. According to the EPO’s data, Chinese companies made 24% more European patent applications in 2021 than in 2020. In total, they filed 16,665 applications – 9% of the total. European companies filed the greatest share of applications (44%). The combined filings from China, Japan and South Korea outstripped those made by US-based businesses for the first time.

“The increase in number of filings by Chinese companies demonstrates the value those companies place on obtaining intellectual property rights in Europe,” Taylor said.

The European patent landscape is set to change later this year when a new framework of unitary patent protection is expected to take effect, underpinned by a new Unified Patent Court (UPC) system through which such patent rights – and those concerning existing European patents that are not opted out of the jurisdiction of the court – are litigated.

Taylor said: “The annual data published by the EPO in the years to come will give an insight into the uptake of unitary patents and a sense of how businesses in different sectors weigh the balance of benefits and risks of such patents. Businesses should start preparing now for the advent of unitary patents and the UPC, if they have not already done so, given the broad implications for patent strategies, and in particular the interplay between the new system and national patent litigation strategies across European jurisdictions such as the UK and Spain which are not part of this new system.”

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