Just a couple of biases overlooked here:

1. Most OECD countries are contiguous with another OECD country. Traveling abroad isn’t a big deal for scientists in Europe or North America, e.g.: you just need a car. So their travel stats will be higher.

2. If you base international collaboration on co-patentee status, that suggests you are looking at assignees, not inventorship. Any decent IP lawyer will tell you that co-ownership of a patent is a pain in the rear. When I was working in the patent section of Applied Materials, we avoided such situations as a matter of policy. That is not the same thing as co-inventors coming from different companies (which would be a more relevant indicator of collaboration, but is not necessarily evident from the patent). Language in a joint development agreement can (and should) allocate ownership on a different basis than inventorship. As a result, looking for co-patentees will hide instances of co-inventorship.

3. Some of what you’re seeing reflects a difference between, esp. US R&D philosophy and Japanese. At least in the industries I worked in (semiconductors, electronics), US companies trying to develop a new widget would work on several projects in parallel, and see which one would reach the spec first. Some of these projects might be entirely in-house, but the rest would be collaborations.

Japanese style, OTOH, was to try to guess which is the one “best“ technology, gamble on that, fail and then repeat. Because each effort was one-at-a-time, engineering groups with a strong NIH bias (quite common when I was at Sony) were a real choke point for reducing the scope for collaboration. This doesn’t contradict your point, but helps to explain why there are fewer collaborations.

This is not to negate entirely the notion that Japanese academia and industrial R&D can be very insular. But quantitatively your stats might not give a clear picture.

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Mar 20, 2023·edited Mar 20, 2023Author

Thanks for your thoughts.

1) I don't think distance is the reason. We're not talking about a trip for a few days but moving overseas for a year or two or more. I would think language would be a bigger obstacle.

2) Thanks for catching my mistake in terminology. OECD did use the term inventor, not patentee, and the article pointed out the difference between inventors and owners. So, the quantities are correct. I'll correct the terms here and on LinkedIn.

3) Thanks for this info; it's both helpful and fascinating as to methodology in commercial innovation. I also understand that, for one complex invention or product, some countries apply a larger number of narrow patents on various facets of the invention compared to others. In that case, would numbers of patents per country be misleading? I'd appreciate hearing your thoughts.

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Mar 20, 2023·edited Mar 20, 2023

Good point, I forgot to mention this.

Patents are costly to maintain throughout their permitted lifetime, which is 20 years from date of the earliest application relating to the invention. (This will be less than 20 years from patent issuance.) In the US, you have to pay a fee at 3.5, 7.5 and 11.5 years after issuance. The fee more than doubles each time, reaching $7,400 per patent at 11.5 years after issuance (for larger companies). In other countries, e.g. Canada, you have to pay more often, even annually. Then consider that you have to pay these fees in every country where you have a patent on that same invention. Consequently, not everyone files lots of patents, but those who do spend millions of USD/yr to maintain their global portfolios, which are regularly reviewed and culled.

I mention this as preamble to what larger companies do: they file patents on inventions they will never produce. The idea is to build a “fence” around the inventions they will put into production. So the number of patents is much larger than the number of key innovations. This was a key to Applied Materials’s patent strategy when I was there. Applied is the world’s largest manufacturer of equipment to make semiconductor chips — they had deeper pockets than most to pay worldwide maintenance fees. The fence strategy prevented competitors from making, using or selling tech that might be roughly as good as Applied’s.

To fully understand the strategy, one has to understand what a patent is: it is only a NEGATIVE right. It doesn’t give you a right to make, use or sell the patented invention — it ONLY gives you a right to prevent other people from doing so. And you don’t have to physically make even a prototype of an invention in order to patent it. The only “uses” of a patent are to sue someone or to license the patent. You don’t need a patent to make, use or sell your invention, though you might need to license or invalidate (by lawsuit, usually) someone else’s patent if it is broad enough to include your product. At Applied back at the turn of the century, we preferred to exercise our negative right, by suing rather than licensing.

Consequently, patent numbers count inventions, but overestimate commercialized innovations (a pleonasm). OTOH, some innovations are maintained as trade secrets, and there isn’t any way to count those, obviously. And some innovations never were covered by either form of IP; these too can’t be counted, for ontological reasons.

I’ve been speaking from the company POV. Your question relates to patent office practice, and yes it’s possible that one country will see several inventions where another saw one. The boundaries of what is an invention may be determined by the history of issued patents in a given territory, or the gastric condition of an examiner on the day they read an application. But in any case, they are always determined socially.

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