It is a special challenge in the early days of primary season to gaze at the headlines and not grow concerned for the health of the republic. Add to the latest gaffe even the briefest of glances at whatever it is Congress happens to be working on that day, and it’s tough not to wonder if there isn’t some ‘other’ than Winston Churchill conspicuously missed when he declared democracy the worst system “except for all the others.”
But then comes hope — in the form of patents. That’s right, the most recent patent numbers are in from around the world, and if there’s no succor to be found in our politics or our leadership, then perhaps we can take some refuge in the fact that America remains dominant in applying for and securing the rights to intellectual property.
This might not seem like much. After all, patents seem to be perpetually under assault. For their detractors, they are a needless distraction. Some technologists have lodged serious philosophical objections to patents, noting that in a digital world marked by openness and collaboration, patents can serve to distort incentives and delay progress. “In today’s era of exponentially advancing technologies … patents have become the greatest inhibitor to innovation and are holding the United States back,” writes entrepreneur and academic Vivek Wadhwa.
On the other side of the debate are those who say that it is precisely because the world is as interconnected as it is that patents represent the last line of defense for institutions and individuals looking to protect their work. Particularly as U.S. companies move abroad, patents are a key element in making sure that the benefits of U.S. research and development dollars accrue to the firms who made those investments in the first place.
Whatever your opinion of patents, what is true is that they are one useful index for a nation’s technological achievements; an additional data point that can be used to compare countries against one another.
Which is what ought to give many of us hope, as this past year was a triumph for the United States. Importantly, by the measurements of the World Intellectual Property Organization, 2014 brought America roaring back to its pre-recession levels of patent applications, with over 60,000 patent applications filed in the United States last year under the Patent Cooperation Treaty. This is an important shift: From 2007 to 2010, patents filed in the United States were down by nearly 10,000, but this year brings the U.S. back above its 2007 levels.
It isn’t just that patent filers find success inside the U.S. Arguably the true test is what happens when U.S. companies do business abroad. And there, too, the picture is a positive one: Not only do American companies lead in total patent applications around the world in 2014, but the over 8,000 patents filed add up to double that filed just two years ago. As it happens, six of the top 25 patent-filing companies were American firms: Google, Intel, Qualcomm, Microsoft, HP and United Technologies.
The true success story may not even be the patents filed in the United States, nor the patents filed by companies based in the U.S. No, the real point of pride in this past year’s patent landscape may be the fact that, among educational institutions filing patents, U.S. universities occupy 9 out of the top 10 positions. Nine out of ten. The only non-U.S. university in the group is Seoul National University of the Republic of Korea — ranked 10th out of 10.
It isn’t just World Intellectual Property Organization’s data that illustrate America’s success. The European Patent Office numbers offer the same story. In a record year for patents for Europe, the U.S. still ranked number one, with 71,745 patents filed, a commanding lead of over 20,000 over the second place finisher, Japan. The U.S. accounts for a staggering 26% of the 274,000 patents filed in Europe in 2014.
The secret to patent success is not especially hard to discern. It reflects the buoyancy of the U.S. economy, the power of our universities, a culture that supports risk-taking and entrepreneurial endeavor, and a legal system that has, since its founding days, enshrined the idea of intellectual property to “promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries.”
But things that are easy to observe are also frequently easy to forget. And our successes are more often overlooked as we enter that peculiar season in our political life when days seem to alternate between comedy and tragedy. So before that circus begins in earnest, let us take one collective moment to celebrate the past year’s wins — and to pray that the careful architecture that made those wins possible is fully understood and appreciated by those who seek to lead it.