Chinese patents reach new heights of low quality

Starting a patent search for an inventor used to be pretty close to fun. It was like setting out on a voyage of discovery, navigating to a niche subject area perhaps previously unvisited.

Thanks to the wonder that is Espacenet, it could be almost a delight to rattle quickly through hundreds of patents, chasing down the comparatively few of relevance.

Now the start of a search tends to be much less of a delight. The reason for the dip in cheer is simple: the massive numbers of Chinese patents being hosed into the system – almost 1.4 million in 2017/18 alone, and two million per year probably not far off.

This explosion in patent filings started a few years back and is encouraged by the Chinese government, which wants to be the world’s leading technology nation in the shortest order possible.

What it means for patent researchers is that search result lists are increasingly dominated by large numbers of Chinese patents which have to be waded through to get anywhere useful.

It’s as if the grass on your lawn grows to knee height between each cutting, however often you do it.

It wouldn’t matter if these were mainly quality patents from quality applicants. The problem is that they are mainly poor quality, as this 2018 Bloomberg article goes some way to confirming.

Even the most knock-kneed patent application is potential prior art, so despite being sorely tempted you can’t simply toss out from your results lists everything with a CN prefix.

But how seriously can you take a patent application where – as in many cases – there may be no published information beyond a title, and any text is only in the original Chinese?

Even if there is an English translation, it’s often so poor that it leaves you none the wiser. And drawings, which should be a good quick clue to relevance, often look amateurish and slipshod.

The impression you get in many cases is that precious little care has gone into the application. You then have to question just how serious the applicant is about acquiring intellectual property, and about their idea generally.

The main drift of Lulu Yilun Chen’s excellent Bloomberg piece is that most Chinese patents are worthless and soon abandoned by applicants who can’t afford to renew them. (A can of worms familiar to grassroots inventors everywhere, never mind China.)

However, of keener interest to us at abettermousetrap.co.uk is her confirmation of our long-held suspicion that some Chinese patent applications are in fact copied from existing non-Chinese patents:

‘A lax approval process for the less inventive categories has led to a flourishing of filings where people literally copy a patent in the US and seek approval in China […] Some companies have also been exposed as frauds, seeking to use patent filings to get tax and residency benefits for employees.’

We don’t have time or inclination to do a detailed study of patent plagiarism, but when you’ve done as many patent searches as we have you develop a nose for things that don’t smell quite right. All we can say is that when it comes to Chinese patents, our nose tends to get more exercise than with patents filed under any other national system.

There is a possible silver lining. If the vast and seemingly unstoppable rate of Chinese patent filings goes on for much longer, it might persuade other governments to start taking seriously the unfitness for purpose of the international patent system. For if there’s one thing China does very well indeed, it’s putting an end to the complacency of others.

Author: Graham Barker

Invention consultant and author of books and digital content on invention since 1983.