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Research shows rise in foreign patent filings in the U.S.

Posted: 16 Oct 2007     Print Version  Bookmark and Share

Keywords:patent filing  intellectual property  licensing 

Foreign nationals residing in the United States are steadily making greater contributions to the country's intellectual property, stirring concern about maintaining the country's competitiveness and the debate over whether to relax U.S. immigration policy.

Research released in August shows that foreign nationals were listed as inventors or co-inventors in 25.6 per cent of patent applications from the United States in 2006, up from 7.6 per cent in 1998.

The data, from the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO), was gathered by academics from Duke, Harvard and New York University. The study defines foreign nationals as individuals with foreign citizenship living and working in the States.

Technology hubs such as California, Massachusetts and New Jersey claimed the highest rate of foreign national patent applications.

The report also shows that foreign nationals were named in more than half of international patent applications filed from the United States by large corporations.

Those include Qualcomm, at 72 per cent; Merck, at 65 per cent; General Electric, at 64 per cent; Siemens, at 63 per cent; and Cisco, at 60 per cent.

At the other end of the spectrum, foreign nationals were named on 6 per cent of General Motors' patent applications and only 3 per cent of Microsoft's.

The U.S. government is among those that benefit from foreign nationals' brainpower. Some 41 per cent of its patent applications list foreign nationals as inventors or co-inventors.

It makes sense that more foreign nationals are applying for tech patents from the United States, said Kenan Jarboe, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Athena Alliance, a non-profit think tank addressing economic issues.

Worldwide trend
There's a worldwide trend toward increased international licensing, he said. And he's not sure there's great significance in the increasing number of foreign-resident filing from the United States.

There's a growing worldwide trend toward international licensing, thus it makes sense that more foreign nationals are applying for tech patents from the United States, said Kenan Jarboe, president of Athena Alliance.

"It's really more about the diffusion of innovation around the globe," Jarboe said. "More foreigners want to protect their international patent in the United States just like U.S. engineers and companies want to protect their IP abroad."

The authors of the study see the research as an argument for loosening U.S. policy on immigration.

"It's fine to have foreigners creating IP, but you want them to stay here," said lead author Vivek Wadhwa, Wertheim Fellow at Harvard Law School's Labor and Worklife Program. "We should have Americans who are going to continue to be part of the American labour force."

If not, an exodus of highly skilled foreign residents could lead to a decline in U.S. competitiveness, he said.

"You have to give these people the ability to stay here because the risk here is that the ability to create new patents leaves us," Wadhwa said.

It's not patents but the thinking behind them that counts, according to Aneesh Chopra, Secretary of Technology for the state of Virginia.

"Of real importance is new idea formation, whether you choose to patent it or incorporate it into a new product or service," said Chopra. "Both will lead to improved economic value."

And new ideas in any form don't necessarily constitute a threat, Chopra added.

"New idea formation is not a zero-sum game," Chopra said. "If a foreign national contributes new ideas, that does not prohibit Virginians from doing the same."

The concern is that ideas created by foreign nationals have a higher risk of commercialising outside the United States?that's the risk, he said.

Chopra, too, sees the underlying issue as immigration.

"In a post-9/11 world, it becomes more difficult to retain foreign nationals," he said. "And the risk we bear is high-value entrepreneurs' leaving America not by choice but because of the difficulties in our immigration process.

- Sheila Riley
EE Times

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