A patent is an exclusive right granted for an invention. Standard patents protect inventions that are novel, useful and involve an inventive step beyond the normal progress of technology.
A patent grants its owner a temporary exclusive right to prevent others from commercially exploiting the invention. Patented IP can also be transferred or licensed to other parties.1 The possibility to obtain a patent encourages inventive activity that inventors might not otherwise have been willing to undertake. In exchange for the patent right, the invention must be disclosed to the public in full, ensuring public access to new technologies so follow-on innovation can occur.
Standard patent applications and grants
In 2021, a record high 32,397 standard patent applications were filed in Australia, an 11% increase on 2020 filings. The marked growth in applications represents a historic break from the positive but flattening growth trend observed over 2014–2020 (see Figure P1).
Figure P1: Standard patent applications in Australia grew by 11% in 2021
Most (91%) standard patent applications filed in Australia are from non-residents, the remaining 9% filed by Australian residents. In 2021, non-resident applications grew 9%, from 26,900 in 2020 to 29,401 in 2021. Patents are a partial indicator of the success of research and development (R&D) in generating innovation outputs.2 Early data indicates that global innovation investments were more resilient during COVID-19 than during past global economic recessions. National governments (including Australia) and top private businesses that have disclosed their R&D budgets for 2020 show sustained growth in R&D investments that year.3
In 2021, 72% of standard patent applications were filed in Australia via the Patent Cooperation Treaty (PCT). This international system, through which applicants can file patents simultaneously in multiple countries, is popular among businesses that operate internationally and file patents in Australia. The remaining 28% of applications were filed directly with IP Australia (see Figure P1). In 2021, a consistent rate of growth was observed for filings via each route.
After declining 10% in 2020, standard patent applications from Australian residents have rebounded, rising 25% (from 2,401 in 2020 to 2,996 in 2021). As a result, the resident share of applications increased by a percentage point, to 9%.
For 2020, data on business expenditure on R&D in Australia is limited. Data on government budgetary support for R&D shows that Australia increased its R&D investment by 24% in 2020. This was the highest growth rate observed for governments that have already disclosed their R&D budgets for 2020, ahead of peers including the United States and Germany.
A significant proportion of the overall increase in resident filings occurred in August 2021 when Australians filed three times as many standard patent applications as in the same period the year prior (see Figure P2). The August peak likely reflects Australian residents bringing new applications forward before 25 August 2021, the final date to file an innovation patent in Australia. The innovation patent is Australia’s second-tier patent, having a lower threshold for acquiring protection that the standard patent, lower cost and a shorter (8-year) protection term.
The system was phased out in 2021, based on evidence that the innovation patent was not meeting its policy objective of supporting SMEs. Existing innovation patent holders retain their rights. In addition, applicants who filed for new standard patents before 25 August retained the option to obtain an innovation patent by converting or dividing the earlier standard patent filing.4
Figure P2: Australian residents filed three times as many patent applications per week in August 2021 than in the same period the year prior
In Australia in 2021, 94% of standard patent applications were filed by organisations and 6% were filed by individuals, down from 8% in 2012. Focusing only on organisational applicants with Australian operations, 68% are small and medium enterprise (SMEs) and 23% are large entities. In 2021, SME filings grew 27% and the SME share of organisational applicants has reached a decadal high, rising 7 percentage points over 2020 and 2021.
Patents are enforceable only after they are granted, meaning they have been assessed as novel, industrially useful and non-obvious by IP Australia. In 2021, 17,155 standard patents were granted in Australia, down 3% on 2020. Due to the lag between a patent’s filing date and grant, patents granted in 2021 correspond to pre-2020 applications.
Countries of origin
The top five foreign countries of origin for standard patent applications in Australia were the United States (US), China, Japan, Germany and the United Kingdom (UK).5 In 2021, applicants from the US were named on 14,582 applications, or 45% of all applications filed in Australia. Applications from the US grew 11% on 2020 (see Figure P3).
In the same period, standard patent applications naming applicants from China were stable (0% change, at 2,358 in 2021). This has halted a run of steep continuous growth that lasted from 2011 to 2020. Over that period applications from China grew at a compound annual growth rate of 20%. Applications from Japan fell by 6% in 2021 (from 1,649 to 1,546), while applications increased from Germany (+4%, from 1,348 to 1,400) and the UK (+10%, from 1,258 to 1,386).
Focusing on ‘high-volume‘ countries of origin (in the top quartile of countries for total applications in 2021), the greatest growth was in applications from Singapore – at 292, these were 62% above their 2020 level – then Canada (+31%, to 720) and New Zealand (+22%, to 424).
Figure P3: Number and growth of standard patent applications by country of origin
Is R&D collaboration becoming more localised?
The development and diffusion of knowledge between countries is core to economic development. International research collaboration allows countries to learn and build capability to respond to unique social and economic challenges. In recent decades, digital technology and cheap travel have enabled greater international collaboration in science and technology production.
A patent application can be filed by a single applicant or by multiple applicants. Those applications filed by multiple applicants can be single-origin filed by two or more Australian co-applicants or mixed-origin filed by Australian applicants with co-applicants from outside Australia.
Co-filing provides a partial indicator of international collaboration behind potentially patentable inventions, though interpreting co-filing data requires care.6
Averaging across all countries of origin for standard patents in Australia, over the period 2016–20 around 7% of patents from a given country involved at least one co-applicant from outside that country. In 2021, the proportion decreased 2 percentage points to 5%. Figure P4 shows that, Japan and China reached local peaks in 2019 then declined over the pandemic period. For European countries (France, Germany, Switzerland), international collaboration reached a local peak in 2020 then declined in 2021
Figure P4: For many leading countries of origin, their share of standard patent applications that indicate international partnerships fell during the pandemic period of 2020–21.
In Australia, most (93%) standard patent applications by residents are filed by single parties only. In 2021, 5% of resident applications indicated domestic partnerships and 2% indicated international partnerships, down a percentage point from 2020.
The initial onset of COVID-19 prompted efforts to harness global science. However, the pandemic has intensified challenges to international cooperation. For example, after the initial outbreak of the pandemic, international collaboration in coronavirus research declined below pre-pandemic levels.7
Estimates from one study indicate that after the first report of a COVID-19 case within a country, that country’s international collaboration rate shrank by 6%.8
However, there is evidence that research is becoming more localised and this trend pre-dates the pandemic. For example, analysing data on scientific publications studies have found that regional research collaborations have strengthened while international collaborations have declined.9
Patents protect technologies, which are assigned into technology classes.10 In 2021, the leading class for standard patent applications in Australia was pharmaceuticals (Class 16), with 3,967 filings, followed by medical technology (Class 13) and biotechnology (Class 15), as shown in Table P1.
|Applications||Annual change 2020-21|
|Organic fine chemistry||1,840||+1%|
Patent applications for pharmaceuticals (Class 16) grew 27% in 2021; this followed 18% growth the year prior. The current pandemic has created an unprecedented need for novel coronavirus vaccines and treatments. By providing temporary exclusive rights, the patent system encourages investment in innovative pharmaceutical research, despite its significant expense, risk and lead times. Applications in medical technology (Class 13) were up 6% in 2021, and filings for biotechnology (Class 15) were up 9% in 2021.
The COVID-19 pandemic has fundamentally altered Australia’s social and work environment, and organisations have been forced to rapidly digitise and redesign their operations. In 2021, patent filings for computer technologies (Class 6) grew 27% from 2020 and exceeded those for civil engineering (Class 35), traditionally the 5th-ranked class.
Figure P5 charts application activity for classes that recorded the highest growth in 2021, excluding ‘low-volume’ classes (below the mean for total applications in 2021). The strongest growth in applications was for audiovisual technology (Class 2). Applications in this class rose 85% (from 305 in 2020 to 563 in 2021) as the global economy has moved to a digital model and people have embraced new communication services. Other high-growth classes included food chemistry (Class 18, +31%, to 766) and other consumer goods (Class 34, +30%, to 852).
Figure P5: In 2021, Computer technologies (Class 6) became the fifth-leading class for standard patent applications, and patent filings for Audiovisual technology (Class 2) grew by 85%
Table P2 lists Australia’s top applicants for standard patent applications, separately focusing on resident and non-resident filers. As with previous years, the leading non-resident applicants include major providers of information and communications technology, infrastructure and smart devices. These include the South Korean tech powerhouse, LG Electronics (259 applications); Chinese smartphone manufacturers, Huawei Technologies (255) and Guangdong Oppo Mobile Telecommunications (197); Swiss food and beverage multinational, Nestlé (157) and Apple (151), which became the first US company to reach a US$3 trillion market capitalisation in early 2022.11
Table P2. Top domestic and international applicants for patents in Australia, 2021
| Top domestic applicants
|1||Aristocrat Technologies Australia Pty Ltd||71|
|2||Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation||52|
|3||NewSouth Innovations Pty Ltd||29|
|5||Breville Pty Ltd||27|
|Top international applicants|
|1||LG Electronics Inc||259|
|2||Huawei Technologies Co Ltd||255|
|3||Guangdong Oppo Mobile Telecommunications Corp Ltd||197|
Among domestic applicants, Aristocrat Technologies led with 71 applications. Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) followed with 52 applications, a 13% increase on their 2020 filings. NewSouth Innovations – the commercialisation arm of the University of New South Wales – filed 29 applications. New to the list of top resident filers was ResMed, the Australian-born global leader in sleep technology and respiratory medical products (28 filings). With 27 applications, Breville, an Australian manufacturer of home appliances, rounded out the list of top patent filers.
The evolution of AI in patents
Artificial intelligence (AI) – machines that simulate human intelligence processes – has the potential to drive productivity improvements across sectors. As its scope of applications expands, AI is reshaping competition by removing historical constraints on the ability of organisations to learn, invent and scale.12 For established businesses, start-ups and entrepreneurs, the ready availability of computing power and increased data availability could reshape the innovation process.
How to gauge the uptake and impact of AI within Australia and its global context? Analysing AI-related patents provides one indicator of AI’s development and diffusion. AI is not a single technology but rather encompasses a collection of interrelated technologies. The Australian Government has identified three critical AI technologies of national interest under the Government Action Plan for Critical Technologies. These are (1) AI algorithms and hardware accelerators, (2) machine learning and (3) natural language processing.
For the 2022 IP Report, IP Australia’s Patent Analytics Hub has analysed the evolution of patents for these key AI technologies in the aggregate. The Hub’s analysis on each of the key technologies can be found in the Action Plan for Critical Technologies Tech Cards. While Australian patent filings in key AI are growing from a low base they are growing at a fast rate, on average doubling each year. The global development of key AI is being driven by computing technology leaders like IBM. Australian patentees are applying key AI technologies to healthcare, productivity, energy and agriculture.
Global patent filings in AI nearly double each year
From 2015 to 2019, 81,913 unique patent families were filed worldwide relating to the three identified AI technologies (a patent family is a set of patent applications relating to the same or similar technical content that share one ‘priority’ application). The total number of AI patent families has roughly doubled each year over the period. Just over 90% of patent families filed during this period are today in force or currently being sought. The strong growth in mostly active patents (shown in Figure P6) suggests a vibrant and rapidly developing commercial sector that has likely not yet peaked
Figure P6: Global filings of patent families in select AI technology areas, by priority years, 2015-19
From a low base, Australian patent filings in AI are growing rapidly
As shown in Figure P7, the global growth trend in the select AI areas was mirrored by strong growth in patent filings in Australia from 2015 to 2019. In the analysis reported here, patent families are assigned to years based on the priority application. As of the time of analysis, many patent families with a priority application filed in other jurisdictions will not yet have been filed in Australia and so these patent families are not yet reflected in Australia’s value for 2019.
While AI patenting in Australia exhibits a strong growth trend, only 1,343 patent families have been filed in Australia, less than 2% of global filings. Based on these figures, Australia has been a relatively minor destination for AI patent protection and there is an opportunity for growth. Patents are not the only way in which AI inventions can be protected, so the low Australian filing activity may reflect the particular application domains or business strategies around which Australian innovators are focused.
Figure P7: Filings in Australia of patent families in select AI technology areas, by priority year, 2015–19
Most Australian patent filings in AI are from the private sector
Focusing on Australian applicants and comparing across sectors (companies, universities, individuals and non-profit organisations), companies are the most prolific filers of patents relating to the selected AI technologies, filing more than 5 times as many AI patents as universities. Companies account for 113 patent families, compared to only 21 filed by universities (see Figure P8). No collaborations between parties or across sectors were identified in AI patents filed by Australians
Figure P8: Total patent families filed by Australian applicants in select AI technology areas, 2015–19
Leading Australian applicants have applied AI to enhance productivity, healthcare, energy and agriculture
Australian applicants filed a total of 156 patent families in AI technologies over the period 2015–19, with 86 (just over half) of these filed in Australia. As shown in Figure P9, the lead applicants include companies from the private sector (e.g., Atlassian with 7 patent families filed) and public research organisations (e.g., CSIRO with 5 patent families).
Atlassian is a Sydney-based project management software provider that achieved a record initial public offering for an Australian company when it was listed on the Nasdaq in 2015, valued at US$4.4 billion. By 2021, the company’s valuation rose to US$101.8 billion (A$140 billion), following 53% average annual growth in its stock price and as the shift to remote work boosted demand for its software.
Atlassian has filed patent applications in machine learning for gesture and text recognition and querying databases using neural network models. The company has not filed any of its AI-related patents in Australia, possibly indicating a lack of technological rivalry in the market
Figure P9: Patent families filed by Australian applicants in select AI technology areas, 2015–19
Many other Australian companies that lead in AI patent filings operate in health care and medical devices. For example, Presagen (3 patent families) is applying AI to advance women’s medicine, including improving the selection of embryos that will lead to successful pregnancies. Strax (2 families) has developed an AI-powered software platform to rapidly integrate bone density images and gauge facture risk. Seesure (2 families) provides a mobile application that monitors the health of epilepsy patients and applies algorithms to detect and predict seizures.
Leading domestic filers are also applying AI to improve agricultural practice. Photonic Detection Systems (two families) has patented technology that mimics the human eye to distinguish plants from weeds and reduce herbicide application.
The top Australian filers include universities and public research organisations. For example, CSIRO has filed AI patents for machine vision algorithms to track and predict cloud motion for solar power forecasting.
Global patent applicants in AI
IBM is the global leader in AI patent applications across the 3 key AI technologies, with 2,758 patent families recorded from 2015–19. IBM’s filings are more than twice the number of its nearest competitor, Samsung, with less than 1,400 patent families (see Figure P10)
Figure P10: Patent families filed by top global applicants in select AI technology areas, 2015–19
Overall, the patent data demonstrate strong global development in AI algorithms and hardware accelerators, machine learning and natural language processing. While the Australian share of the global market is small, Australian filings are on a strong growth trend from a low base. Australian applicants such as Atlassian and CSIRO are developing commercial solutions in nationally important technologies, contributing to national capability and resilience.
States and territories
Large growth in standard patent applications was observed for all states and territories in 2021. As in previous years, New South Wales (NSW) was the leading source of patent applications (1,119 applications) followed by Victoria (769 applications). New South Wales also led among populous states for applications per capita.
Table P3. Patent applications, Australian states and territories, 2020–21
|Total 2021||Change 2020-21||
Applications per capita
Sources: Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS). Australian Demographic Statistics, June 2021. Retrieved 27 January 2021
Filing a provisional patent application gives applicants 12 months to decide whether they want to file a complete patent application while establishing a priority date. The priority date determines the prior art that will be considered in assessing an invention’s novelty or non-obviousness when examined for a standard patent.
The number of provisional applications filed in Australia has been trending downwards since 2016 and fell a further 12% in 2021, from 4,864 in 2020 to 4,297). Australian residents are overwhelmingly the primary users of the system, with residents listed on 94% of all filings (4,031) in 2021. Applications were also received from New Zealand, the US, the UK and Singapore, among other origin countries.
A provisional application is one of several options available to businesses to establish a foothold in the patent system both in Australian and in key export markets. The reasons for choosing one particular pathway over another will vary based on the commercial strategy of the applicant and current conditions both in Australia and their export markets. On average, over the past 5 years applicants have filed 6 standard patent applications for each provisional patent, and that proportion increased to 8 standard applications per provisional in 2021.
Individuals account for 35% of all provisional patent applicants, a share that has declined 10 percentage points from 45% in 2012. The remaining 65% of applicants are organisations, 55% of which are SMEs, a proportion that has increased from 44% since 2012.
A small but growing number of provisional applications are filed by partnerships involving large organisations and smaller entities. From 2012 to 2021, the share of applications filed by large organisations that involve multiple parties has risen from 3% to 10%, and nearly all (94%) of these applications are co-filed with smaller entities. The finding is consistent with evidence that provisional patents are used, for example, by universities to aid research commercialisation and technology transfer.13
Anticipating the phase-out of the innovation patent, innovation patent filings have grown dramatically in recent years. In 2021, applications (including new filings and standard patents converted to innovation patents) grew 71% on 2020 (from 4,585 to 7,844), their level in 2020 being 2.5 times their level in 2019. Non-residents accounted for 78% of the growth in applications in 2021, primarily due to increased filings from China (+26%, to 3,318) and India (at 2,371, nearly 4.5 times their 2020 level).14
Australian filings overseas
IP rights granted in Australia do not provide protection in other countries. To protect IP in other countries, Australian inventors must file patent applications abroad. Based on the latest data from the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), the number of patents filed overseas by Australians decreased 5% in 2020, with a total of 9,106 applications.15 Despite the decrease, the number of Australian applicants abroad remained above the 2018 level.
Australians can seek patent protection in other countries by filing through the Patent Cooperation Treaty (PCT). This provides an alternative route to filing applications directly with overseas IP offices. Through the PCT an applicant can file a single “international” patent application instead of filing several national or regional applications. Granting of patents remains under the control of national IP offices. The approach provides applicants more time to assess the value of an invention and its most profitable markets to better target their patent protection strategy.
The PCT route is a major vehicle for Australian applicants to file patent applications overseas. Most (73%) Australian applications abroad are filed via the PCT. The share of Australian applications abroad filed direct has fallen 7 percentage points since 2014 (from 34% to 27%) as Australians have increasingly preferred the PCT route.
The United States continues to be the most popular destination for Australian filings abroad in 2020, with 3,469 Australian-origin applications. The US accounts for 38% of overseas filing activity by Australians. The next-ranked destinations were the European Patent Office, China and New Zealand at 11%, 8% and 7% respectively. The largest increase in filings abroad occurred in Saudi Arabia (25 more filings), with the share of filings increasing to 5%.
Despite an upward trend in participation, the gender gap in patenting persists
For Australia to realise its potential for innovation and growth, it’s vital to increase the supply of innovations from people of diverse backgrounds and ensure Australia is not losing potential innovators. An enduring concern is the under-representation of women and girls in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields. Evidence suggests there are no systematic productivity differences between women and men in creative and innovative endeavours. Women can face many impediments to their activity and success.16
Studies on the gender of inventors on patents show that gender imbalances persist, with substantial differences across countries and technology fields. However, women’s participation in patenting is rising.17 Female inventors comprised around 12% of unique Australian inventors listed on patent applications in Australia in 2016, up from 4% in 1980. Over that period, the female inventor share of Australian filings in civil engineering remained low, at just over 10%, but in biotechnology and organic fine chemistry rose from less than 20% to more than 50%.
Most patent applications filed globally by Australian residents are filed via the PCT route. WIPO data on PCT applications featuring Australian inventors shows that female participation is increasing: around 25% of PCT applications from Australia list at least one female inventor, a share that has steadily increased over the last 5 years and rose 2 percentage points in 2021.
That increase in participation is primarily due to growth in applications attributed to mixed teams, involving both men and women inventors. The results could reflect change in the team composition of inventors or, alternatively, shifts in organisational practice with women inventors more likely to be recognised on patent applications for their contributions.
Figure P11: Women participation in patents from Australia filed via the PCT
- Once granted, a patent allows the holder to exclude anyone else from using their patented invention in Australia for a prescribed maximum period, up to 20 years for standard patents and eight years for innovation patents. Pharmaceutical substances that have experienced a delay in market approval can receive standard patent extensions, granting up to 25 years protection.
- Although patenting typically occurs early in the life of a research project, R&D also tends to produce lagged effects on firm patenting. Pakes A, & Z Griliches (1984), ‘Patents and R&D at the firm level: A first look.’ In Griliches Z (ed.), R&D, patents and productivity. University of Chicago Press, Chicago: 55–72. For a review of existing literature and new evidence on the gestation lag of patented knowledge production, see: Wang, N & J Hagedoorn (2014),’The lag structure of the relationship between patenting and internal R&D revisited.’ Research Policy, 43: 1275–1285.
- See WIPO (2021), Global Innovation Index 2021 –Australia. Accessed 17 September 2021. See also: OECD Directorate for Science, Technology and Innovation (March 2021), OECD main science and technology indicators: Highlights on R&D expenditure, March 2021 release. OECD.
- For additional analysis of how the phase-out of the innovation patent has affected Australian patent filings in 2021, see Summerfield, M (26 January 2022), ‘Australian patent filings up in 2021, aided by innovation patent’s demise’. Patentology. Accessed 21 February 2022, https://blog.patentology.com.au/2022/01/australian-patent-filings-up-in-2021.html.
- We count an application as originating from a country if at least one applicant on the application is a resident of that country, as indicated by the applicant’s address.
- R&D and commercialisation partnerships can involve technology transfer and IP trading that is not reflected in co-filing data. Further, foreign entities listed on resident applications may be parents or subsidiaries of Australian companies, so interpreting co-filing as evidence of international collaboration requires some care.
- See Maher B & R Van Noorden (2021), ‘How the COVID pandemic is changing global science collaborations’. Nature. Accessed 7 February 2022, https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-021-01570-2.
- Liu M et al. (2021), ‘Pandemics are catalysts of scientific novelty: Evidence from COVID-19’. Journal of the Association for Information Science and Technology, 1–14.
- Fitzgerald J, S Ojanperä & N O’Clery (2021), ‘Is academia becoming more localised? The growth of regional knowledge networks within international research collaboration.’ Applied Network Science, 6:38.
- We analyse application trends across classes using a scheme maintained by WIPO The WIPO technology concordance groups various International Patent Classification (IPC) classes and subclasses into 35 technology fields. For details, see https://www.wipo.int/ipstats/en/.
- Nicas J (2022), ‘Apple becomes first company to hit $3 trillion market value’. New York Times, 3 January 2022. Accessed 16 February 2022, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/01/03/technology/apple-3-trillion-market-value.html.
- Iansiti M and K Lakhani (2020), Competing in the Age of AI: Strategy and Leadership When Algorithms and Networks Run the World. Boston: Harvard University Press.
- Nugent A, H Chan & U Dulleck (2022), ‘Government funding of university-industry collaboration: Exploring the impact of targeted funding on university patent activity’. Scientometrics, 127: 29–73.
- A report published by the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) suggests the high rate of Chinese patent and trade mark filings may be influenced by government subsidies and other non-market factors. Mangelson M, ETL Wu, M Diehl, L Lian, Q Sheng & D Wilson (2021), Trade marks and patents in China: The impact of non-market factors on filing trends and IP systems. USPTO. India has similar policies. See https://www.meity.gov.in/content/support-international-patent-protection-electronics-information-technology. Further investigation is required into the full set of behavioural drivers.
- Data on Australian filings abroad is derived from WIPO IP Statistics Data Center 2021. Retrieved 04 February 2022.
- Astegiano J, SG Esther and CC de Toledo (2019), ‘Unravelling the gender productivity gap in science: a meta-analytical review.’ Royal Society Open Science, 6(6).
- See Martinez GL, J Raffo & K Saito (2016), ‘Identifying the gender gap of PCT inventors.’ WIPO Economic Research Working Paper 33.