Government-issued patents protect inventions that are new, not obvious, and useful. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) grants patents to inventors from all over the world, and the sheer volume of U.S. patents and the importance of the U.S. market makes them a useful indicator of trends in the geography of inventive activity.
In 1992, about 54% of USPTO patents were granted to U.S.-based inventors; by 2010, this percentage had fallen to 49%, a possible indication of growing inventive activity elsewhere.
Among patents granted to non-U.S. inventors, the shares of EU- and Japan-based individuals have eroded by 9–11 percentage points since 1992. Asia-8's share rose by 15 points over the period, mostly because of activity by South Korea and Taiwan (figure
The picture of inventive activity drawn by Chinese patents is mixed. Among USPTO awards to non-U.S. inventors, China's share rose from below 0.5% to 3%. By this indicator, broad-based indigenous inventive activity, a focus of Chinese government policy, appears to remain elusive. But patents granted in China to China-based inventors rose from 5,000 in 2001 to 65,000 in 2009, and the Chinese-inventor share of Chinese patent grants increased from 33% to more than 50%.
Not all patents are equal in presumed value. Seeking protection for the same invention in the United States, the EU, and Japan requires substantial resources, suggesting that such patents are considered especially valuable by their owners.
In 2008, U.S. and EU inventors each accounted for 30% of such high-value patents. Japan's share declined since 2000, while that of the Asia-8 rose, largely on the strength of Korean patenting activity (figure