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News · 07.04.2022

Patent applications filed in Europe at all-time high in 2021

On 5 April this year, the European Patent Office (EPO) released its annual patent application statistics, Patent Index 2021.

Article written by Nanna Meyland Nicolaisen, European Patent Attorney

The EPO received 188,600 applications in 2021, an increase of 4.5 per cent on the previous year and the highest number ever. The number of patent applications filed in Europe picked up again after a slight decline by 0.6 per cent in 2020. The number of Chinese applications rose by as much as 24 per cent, and Denmark and the other Nordic countries once again appeared near the top when it comes to applications per capita.

The combined effect of the increase in applications and the unitary patent will be felt

Whether patent-active or not, Danish businesses should be aware of these developments, as the rights of others may determine their future; even, and perhaps especially, if they are not patent-active themselves. As always, we recommend that patent-active businesses review their portfolios on a regular basis. In this way, they will ensure that their portfolios stay up-to-date and aligned with their current products, strategies and business plans, and that they keep an eye on other businesses’ existing and new registrations.

The increase in applications filed with the EPO is a clear indicator of the trends of the coming years. With the increased patenting activity, not least in the fields with the highest levels of activity, we see a not insignificant element of “jumping on the bandwagon” to reserve space for one’s own future rights.

Businesses should also bear in mind that it will soon be possible to apply for the European unitary patent, which will apply across all EU member states participating in the Unified Patent Court scheme. If a business is granted protection under a unitary patent, it does not need to actively choose Denmark to ensure that its newly issued patent becomes valid in Denmark.

The annual maintenance fees associated with the unitary patent correspond to the cost of maintaining a conventional European patent in the four most popular countries, i.e. the United Kingdom, Germany, France and the Netherlands, combined. Presumably, a German business aiming to enter these markets would apply for the unitary patent, which would therefore also apply in Denmark. The likely result is that we will see many more active patents in Denmark, and this may of course greatly impact Danish sales and production businesses.

Based on the trend in applications coupled with the ratification of the Unified Patent Court, I believe that Danish businesses may come under pressure, if they pay insufficient attention to the development of new products and potential competitors holding rights which they might inadvertently infringe.

Massive increase in Chinese applications

The United States still tops the list of countries filing the highest number of applications (46,533). Germany comes in second (25,969) and Japan third (21,681). China took fourth place in 2021 (16,665), up a staggering 24 per cent on 2020. The increase in the number of Chinese applications reflects the international trend which is also seeing strong growth in Chinese businesses.

In the fields of technology, digital communication (15,400) took over the first place from medical technology (15,321). Computer technology (14,671) landed in third place. According to the EPO, this trend highlights the digitalisation of society, for instance in the transport sector.

The number of applications within a given technology is first and foremost an indication of the trend in the development of new technology, but it is also an indication of the fields that the markets look to for development and growth. Once again, it should be emphasised that Danish businesses that are not patent-active and operating in the field of, for instance, digital communication would be well-advised to begin considering what a proper strategy for managing their assets could be.

If you have any doubts as to where to begin or how to develop your patenting strategy, I recommend that you seek professional advice. Naturally, what is the right solution for one company may not be the right solution for another. It will depend on the patent maturity of your business, among other things, or, in other words, how far you have come in your efforts to work actively with patents. In very broad terms, the process begins with clarifying the need for and relevance of patents. Next, you will map out your core products and competition, apply for rights and clarify the level of free scope in the market. This will ultimately result in a proactive IP strategy with registered rights which you will actively enforce.

European trends – Danish businesses taking third place

Denmark took third place on the list of countries with the highest number of European patent applications per capita (2,642 applications), surpassed only by Switzerland (8,442) and Sweden (4,954). For Danish businesses, this represented an increase of almost 10 per cent compared with 2020.

So, despite the doomsday prophecies about China taking over and the consequences of the unitary patent, or perhaps precisely because of them, statistics show that Danish businesses and Danish industry on the whole are mindful of protecting their businesses now and in the future. I am pleased on behalf of Danish businesses, and it bodes well for the future as continued focus on patents gives and will continue to give the Danish business sector a resilience that it is likely to need in the near future.

Further details on the EPO’s statistics are available here.

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