The Dangerfield Theory of Innovation and IP in ChinaBy
In a few days, I’ll be speaking about IP and innovation in China at the RISE 2015 conference in Miami, Florida, sponsored by INDA (a professional organization for the nonwoven fabrics industry). In my presentation, I’ll be sharing my “Dangerfield Theory” of IP and innovation in China. The Dangerfield Theory is based on comedian Rodney Dangerfield, who famously and repeatedly complained that he got no respect. China, in spite of remarkable advances in IP and innovation, continues to get no respect. Like Rodney himself, China is also a heavyweight, now leading the world in patents and IP litigation, and leading in the pursuit of many key technologies. Their innovation and IP is no laughing matter, but continues to just get no respect. This make China like Dangerfield, and for those companies and nations that ignore the threats and opportunities China creates, Chinese IP and innovation will also become “danger field.” Ignoring this field of danger and opportunity is foolhardy. It’s the kind of sleepy, lazy response we seen when a company or nation is beset by innovation fatigue.
The tendency of Chinese IP and innovation to be invisible to the West is an issue I raised in 2011 right after the Thompson Reuter Top 100 Global Innovators report for 2011 included nothing from China, Taiwan, or Hong Kong in its list of 100 top innovators based on international patent filings over the past three years. I was astonished at how Chinese IP could be so invisible and overlooked, given that Foxconn/Honghai Precision, the Taiwanese and Chinese partner of Apple, compared to Apple itself actually had 3 times as many US patents in the time period of interest. Honghai had roughly 50 times as many US patents field as some companies that made the list. Other heavy international filers like Huawei, ZTE, and Lenovo were also neglected.
I contacted Thompson Reuters to complain, wondering also if they had made errors in their search or forget to include Honhai Precision in their search terms. I was told that they had done the analysis accurately, relying on a proprietary algorithm that requires a company to file in the US, the EPO (Europe), and Japan for a patent to count as an “international” patent. This definition tends to discriminate against Chinese IP, in my opinion, for Chinese companies, when they seek international protection, are usually content with IP in China and the US, plus some other specific nations, but tend to do relatively few filings with the EPO or with Japan. Japanese companies naturally file their first, just as Chinese companies file first in China. Given the high political tensions between Japan and China, and the relatively small market it is for Chinese companies, the motivation to file in Japan is small, regardless of the quality of the invention. Insisting on filing in Japan rather than China puts China at a great disadvantage and favors the many Japanese companies that make the list. Requiring that a patent be filed in the EPO and Japan in addition to the US sets a very high bar that does not properly reflect whether an invention is good enough to be pursued with international IP.
In 2012, the Thompson Reuters Top 100 Global Innovators report still had nothing from China. Its 2013 report finally mentioned Taiwan, but not Honghai/Foxconn. Only the Taiwanese semiconductor giant TMSC broke into the top 100. But the latest report from the end of 2014 finally mentioned a mainlaind Chinese company: Huawei. It’s about time. It’s not like Huawei just barely broke into the ranks of companies pursuing international IP. For several years they, like ZTE, have been in the top 5 international filers, according to the World IP Organization which administers PCT (Patent Cooperation Treaty) filings. Huawei is actually the world’s #1 international filer and has been for some time. Looks like they managed to barely break past whatever algorithmic blinders Thompson Reuters has, and for that tiny bit of progress, I guess we have to congratulate the folks at TR.
My soft and hesitant congratulations, though, may not be heard amid the roar of complaints that TR is facing for its related report, China’s IQ (Innovation Quotient), which praises China for its rapid rise in innovation and patent filings (in spite of meagre recognition on the Top 100 report). Some loud voices immediately complained, reminding us that Chinese innovation is weak and most of its patents are low quality. On Dec. 13, 2014, the influential magazine, The Economist, ran an editorial, “Patent fiction: Are Ambitious Bureaucrats Fomenting or Feigning Innovation?,” criticizing TR for their positive report on China and reminding us that China’ does not file as high a percentage of international patents as Japan, and suggesting that Chinese innovation and IP is “feigned” by bureaucrats and not driven by real inventions from real innovators. Still no respect!
Yes, there is a problem with poor quality patents in China driven by tax breaks. But that is changing as companies increasingly look to patents as strategic tools for the future, and are striving to increase quality. The quality problems in China may more severe than they are in the US, but the quality is improving, and expensive international filings are increasing, with China now #3 in the world, ahead of Germany, and likely to overtake Japan in a few years.
It’s true that Japanese patents are much more likely to be filed overseas than Chinese patents (something like 30% for Japan versus 5% for China), but this is not necessarily a reflection on the quality of the patent. The economic value is also an important issue. Japan is a small market. Its businesses prosper by selling products to many large foreign markets like the US, Europe, and China. There are strong economic reasons why Japanese companies would seek foreign patent protection. China, on the other hand, represents a huge and growing market. Apart from manufacturing for foreign companies using foreign IP, Chinese companies producing and creating their own products tend to find the Chinese market to be a big enough opportunity to keep them busy for years to come, and rely much less on exporting these to the confusing and uncertain overseas markets in the US and Europe. The economic incentives to seek IP overseas is less for many Chinese innovators than it is for Japanese innovators, and naturally we can expect foreign filings to be somewhat diminished, even when the invention is of high quality.
There is a tsunami of quality IP and advanced innovation coming from China. China is learning and rapidly improving its approach to IP. Those who continue to ignore the threats and opportunities coming from this very change will find that the “Dangerfield Theory of Chinese IP and innovation” ultimately means the joke will be on them.