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Facts and Figures: Patents, Trade Marks, Designs and Hearings: 2021

By Thomas Brick, UK and European Patent Attorney

On 20 July 2022, the IPO published its annual report on intellectual property registered rights during 2021. On the patent side, the number of applications filed at the IPO in 2021 (filed directly or via PCT applications) has fallen – in keeping with the overall trend over the last 10 years. Figure 1 below illustrates this trend, with the number of patent applications in 2021 down 8.7% relative to 2020 (from 20,651 in 2020 to 18,854 in 2021) and down 18.8% relative to 2012 (from 23,229 in 2012).

Figure 1 – Patent trends at the IPO in the last 10 years

The IPO concluded in their 2021 paper ‘The changing profile of users of the UK patent system’ that the general downwards trajectory of patent applications at the IPO in recent years is down to the a “complex mixture of components”, including a loss of applications from “one-off applicants or applicants with very small portfolios”. Of course, there are also early indications that Brexit and COVID‑19 may have had affected applicants’ behaviour – particularly from UK-based applicants, for whom applications in 2021 are down 3.2% relative to 2020 (from 11,960 to 11,573). Indeed, if we take a look at data from the EPO’s ‘Statistics & Trends Centre’ for UK-based applicants of EP applications, we see the numbers are similarly down in 2021, down 1.2% relative to 2020 (from 5,698 to 5,627).

Figure 1 also shows the marked increase in UK patent grants in recent years (10,899 in 2021, up 11.5% relative to 2020). The IPO has put this down to their recent achievement in clearing their patent examination backlog, which has seen the number of late patent examinations[1] reduced from 13,000 to zero in the last three years.

London-based patent applicants remain the most active UK-based filers at the IPO this year, with 2,573 applications, up from 2,505 in 2020. Figure 2 shows the regional activity in the UK, illustrating the source of the 11,573 patent applications filed at the IPO by UK-based applicants[2]. Applicants from the South East and from the East of England follow London, with 1,841 and 1,652 patent applications, respectively, filed in 2021.

Figure 2 – 2021 patent applications at the IPO from UK applicants, by home region.

Figure 3 illustrates a breakdown of filing activity by country worldwide. 2021 saw patent applications at the IPO from 92 different countries around the world[3]. 7,281 patent applications were filed at the IPO from overseas, down 16% from 2020. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the most active users of the UK patent system – aside from UK users themselves – are from the US, with 2,586 applications filed in 2021, followed by China and Germany with 605 and 467 applications, respectively.

Figure 3 – 2021 patent applications at the IPO from non-UK applicants (no data for grey-shaded countries)

As seen from Figure 4 below, of the 10 countries from which the IPO received at least 150 patent applications in 2021, the biggest proportional increase in activity relative to 2020 came from Canadian applicants (from 134 to 155 applications, up 16%). While still very active in terms of absolute numbers, China’s 2021 filing activity is just 37% of the 2020 total, down from 1,647 applications in 2020 to 605 in 2021.

Figure 4 – Patent filing activity change relative to 2020 for the most active regions worldwide

Taking a look at the top applicants in terms of both the number of patent applications filed and the number of patents granted in 2021 – as in Table 1 below – we see significant activity from big players in the electrical and computing fields. IBM, for example, filed over 300 applications in 2021, while Ocado Innovations, who use AI and machine learning to optimise warehouses and reduce food waste, filed an impressive 123 applications. Halliburton, the US energy industry multinational, were granted over 500 UK patents in 2021.

Table 1 – Top applicants for patent applications and patent grants

In terms of technology areas, there has been a noticeable increase in patent publications in all IPC sections[4]. As seen in Figure 5 below, the most significant increase in publication activity since 2020 – in absolute numbers – comes from the “Electricity” IPC section, which covers such innovations as electrical components, electronic communication techniques, and electrical power generation. The IPC section “Physics”, including optics, computing, and cryptography amongst other fields, remains the most active overall in 2021.

Figure 5 – Published applications and granted patents by IPC sections

The IPO is particularly welcoming to businesses with an environmental focus, who are able to benefit from accelerated processing of their patent application via the Green Channel. The Green Channel was introduced in 2009 and has seen over 4000 requests thus far. The IPO received a record 449 applications through the Green Channel in 2021, up 12% from 2020 and up over 200% since the scheme was introduced.

There is some evidence of a small number of applicants shifting to using the EPO instead of the IPO. The different trends between the two offices are driven by changes in the behaviour of applicants, as would be expected in the current climate and given the differences in fees and coverage of the two. The majority of applications to the IPO are still from UK applicants, however UK-based applications and applications from abroad have dropped in recent years.

[1] Patent backlogs are those that have not been examined more than 42 months after the initial application.

[2] Where regions are determined based on the address given for the first named applicant. The regions are those used by IPO: East Midlands; East of England; London; North East; North West; Northern Ireland’ Scotland; South East; South West; Wales; West Midlands; and Yorkshire and The Humber.

[3] Where countries are determined based on the address given for the first named applicant. There are 15 applications for which the country of origin is unknown.

[4] Sections are the highest level of hierarchy of the IPC system. Counts are based on the first / inventive IPC allocated to each application.


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