The Patent Cooperation Treaty (PCT) provides a mechanism for filing one patent application, referred to as a PCT or international patent application, that can later branch out into one or more national or regional patent applications. PCT applicants receive an International Search Report and a Written Opinion regarding the patentability of the claimed invention based upon the references found in the search report. In addition, PCT applicants have the option of requesting an International Preliminary Report on Patentability, which is a preliminary assessment of whether the claimed invention is novel, represents an inventive step (i.e., is not obvious), and has industrial applicability.
PCT applications are useful in that a single filing can preserve the right to later pursue patent protection in regional patent systems like the European Patent Office and in the patent offices of most industrialized nations including the United States. A PCT applicant can use the International Search Report, the Written Opinion, and other relevant business factors in deciding where to further pursue protection.
In 2013, there were 205,300 PCT filings, the first time the 200,000 annual threshold has been crossed and a 5.1% increase over 2012. The United States retained its leadership as the top PCT filing country with just over 57,000 applications. Japan came in second with almost 44,000 applications. China moved up to third place for the first time at over 21,500 filings, followed by Germany at almost 18,000 and South Korea nearing 12,500. Together, the filings from the U.S. and Japan represented almost half of all PCT filings in 2013.
If the member states of the European Patent Convention (EPC) are analyzed collectively, rather than individually, the EPC would represent the co-leader in the number of PCT filings at about 28% of the annual total.
The year-to-year change in filing activity is particularly interesting. While the EPC member filings declined slightly in 2013, the PCT filings from China increased about 15% compared to 2012. The next highest annual increases were the U.S. at 10.8% and Sweden at 10.4%. The rapid increase in filings from China may be attributed in part to government patent subsidies to small and medium sized domestic enterprises and research institutions.