Over the last two months, Li Zeyan, a patent attorney in Beijing, has been busy coaching her co-workers on handling patent filing for clients.
Li, a partner at Beijing-based Unitalen Attorneys at Law, is in charge of handling patent filings from China in overseas markets and they have seen patent applications from their clients doubled over the last two months.
"We have anticipated the surge of patent filings from China and such a trend will continue throughout the year as Chinese firms are increasingly sensitive to protecting their intellectual property rights," Li said.
Li's department dealt with around 100 patent applications for clients from China in overseas markets in the first two months this year, a quarter of the total they handled last year.
"The slowdown of the economy does not seem to have killed the enthusiasm of Chinese firms for filing patents," Li said.
Surge in patents
China has seen an increasing volume of patent filings in recent years, both domestically and overseas.
A report released on March 6 by the European Patent Office (EPO) showed patent filings from Chinese firms and institutions in Europe increased by 11.1 percent year-on-year in 2012, making China the fastest growing country in terms of filings in Europe.
Chinese firm ZTE Corp, the world's fifth-largest telecommunications equipment maker, broke into the globally top ten firms in terms of patent applications for the first time in 2012, rising from 43rd to 10th position, according to the report.
Another Chinese firm, Huawei, the world's second-largest telecommunications equipment maker, ranked 17th.
The report also showed that the majority of applications from China are in computer technology, digital communications and telecommunications.
"One of the reasons is that Chinese companies have been manufacturing products in these areas for many years and have acquired strong knowledge. They are also developing their own inventions," Oswald Schröder, spokesperson for EPO, told the Global Times in an e-mail Tuesday.
In a statement sent to the Global Times Tuesday, ZTE said the company has increased its patent applications overseas since 2008 and has seen average annual growth of 60 percent in international applications.
The World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) said in a report in December that China overtook the US to become the top patent filing country in the world in 2011.
China's State Intellectual Property Office (SIPO) received more than 526,000 patent applications in 2011, accounting for a quarter of the world total, the report said. WIPO Director General Francis Gurry said at the release of the report that China was expected to perform as well in 2012 as it did in 2011.
Quantity vs quality
However, despite the large volume of patent filings by Chinese firms, the quality of these patents is low and there is still a long way to go before China can be considered an innovative country, analysts and officials said.
"The number of patent filings only reflects the awareness of intellectual property rights (IP). The number of invention patents granted reflects the technical level of a country," Wang Qian, a professor of intellectual property at the East China University of Political Science and Law, said.
But currently, most of China's patent applications are for utility models, trademarks and industrial designs rather than for original inventions and the ratio of patents granted is still small, he said.
"Patent applications are one expression of R&D activities, but not the only one," Rainer Osterwalder, deputy spokesperson for EPO, told the Global Times in an e-mail Tuesday.
"Chinese companies are only now beginning to enter the grant phase for their filings before the EPO and at other IP offices," he said.
Tian Lipu, director of the SIPO, said during the annual two sessions of the national legislative and consultative bodies that the large number of patent filings in China does not offer a true guide to quality. It is the number of patents that are held by domestic users that is the key measure if IP can be transformed into products, he said.
The number of invention patents held by domestic users was only 800,000 by the end of 2012, around half of which or 435,151 are patents that have high technical and market value, data from the SIPO showed.
China aims to achieve 3.3 invention patents per 10,000 people by the end of 2015, according to the 12th Five-Year Plan for National Economic and Social Development (2011-15).
The country is actually expected to achieve this goal in 2013, but compared with innovative countries around the world with an average of 20 invention patents per 10,000 people, the number in China is still low, Tian told the Global Times Tuesday.
"China is by no means an innovation power, because most invention patents are applied for by research institutions rather than enterprises, which means many of these patents cannot be transformed into products," Jia Hepeng, former editor-in-chief of Science News Bi-weekly and a science policy researcher at Ohio State University, told the Global Times Thursday.
Thomson Reuters released in December a list of the top 100 innovative enterprises around the world, and no Chinese firms were on the list.
Many applications in China are a result of finishing research tasks rather than for meeting market demand. In the current research funding system in China, the balance between the quantity and quality of patents cannot be achieved, Jia said.
China allocated R&D funding of 1.02 trillion yuan in 2012, accounting for 1.97 percent of GDP, official data showed. Many research institutions or even companies competed to obtain the funding by filing more patents, but a lot of such funds were misused, an insider who declined to be named told the Global Times.
"China is now in transition from being a country that focuses on copying to one that is innovative. China aims to become an innovative country by 2020," Tian said.
"To shift from focusing on quantity to quality, policies should support invention patents, patents granted and international patent filing," Tian said.
Back in Beijing, Li Zeyan, the patent attorney who has been in the IP industry for more than a decade, said it is obvious that China will not have innovative companies such as Apple Inc or a Nobel Prize for invention overnight. But she still believes it will happen one day.