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On the list of top 250 largest patent holders worldwide (2021), I see that Chinese universities hold many more patents than other universities, even normalizing by population size or student population size. Why? I am especially interested in the difference between China and the USA.

Universities ranked by number of active patent families* from the link above:

Rank Name # active patent families Country
2 Chinese Academy of Sciences CAS 78,415 China
16 Tsinghua University 31,368 China
34 Zhejiang University ZJU 21,805 China
76 Zhejiang University of Technology ZJUT 11,053 China
109 Dalian University of Technology 7,932 China
112 National Research Council of Science and Technology 7,803 South Korea
119 Nanjing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics 7,373 China
124 China University of Mining and Technology CUMT 7,014 China
151 University of California 5,603 USA
157 Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique CNRS 5,370 France
218 Capital Medical University 3,739 China

*An active patent family is:

a collection of global patent filings related to a single invention. For example, if a company invents a new technology and files related patent applications in 10 countries, that represents one patent family. Further we only count patent families that are active – which contain at least one current, granted patent. This is a patent that can be enforced and that has not expired.

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    How did you select the universities in your table? Dec 26, 2022 at 21:16
  • @AzorAhai-him- I tried to extract all universities from the top 250. I may have missed a few ones. Dec 26, 2022 at 21:59
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    I am confused by your response. There are not 250 universities in that table, nor are they all from China, suggesting it isn't a list of the highest-ranking Chinese universities. Dec 26, 2022 at 22:42
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    @AzorAhai-him- I tried to extract all universities from the list of the top 250 largest patent holders worldwide. (Most of the 250 largest patent holders are companies.) Dec 26, 2022 at 23:18
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    If you count public not-exactly-university research institutions as CNRS (#157) for the list, arguably the Fraunhofer Gesellschaft (#163) should also be included. Also on the list are #239 Zhejiang University of Science and Technology ZUST and #241 Zhejiang Ocean University ZJOU.
    – Anyon
    Dec 27, 2022 at 10:16

2 Answers 2

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I suspect there are two main reasons.

  1. There are substantial subsidies for patent applications in China
  2. Chinese patents are generally of lower quality; thus it takes less work to file them, and there is a lower bar on what to patent.

Patent Subsidies

It costs a lot of money to file a patent application in the US. Meanwhile, in China, currently, there are monetary subsidies from various levels of government for filing patents.

Lei and colleagues wrote about this issue in 2013:

Other observers, however, believe that the patent boom is largely due to various patent subsidy policies implemented by local governments to meet and/or exceed the patenting targets specified by the government.³

They go on to note:

it’s likely that the increase in the number of applications is due to patentees broke up their patents to get more applications (and thus more subsidies).

Patent Quality

The other issue is patent quality. In my personal experience with university patent offices in the US, the professionals that work there are very interested in if your invention is of significant enough quality and commercial value before filing for a patent--after all, it costs a lot of money.

Because of the subsidies, universities in China may be less interested in patent quality. The bar is lower, allowing more patent applications.

Hefa and Zhenxing wrote about this in 2014 :

Based on the analysis above, it is discovered that of all the four aspects of patent quality, China falls behind in quality for invention, document quality, and quality for commercialization... The lagging behind quality for commercialization shows the reality that Chinese patents are less commercially valuable. The average royalty and license fee is significantly lower compared with developed countries.

In conclusion, there are subsidies from the Chinese government that incentivize more patent applications. Further, the quality of the resulting patents is lower.

The Chinese government seems to agree:

China plans to stop all patent subsidies by 2025 to help shift its intellectual property (IP) focus from quantity to quality.

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    Please consider an additional possible reason. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/…
    – BillOnne
    Dec 26, 2022 at 19:20
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    @BillOnne I'm a bit confused by your comment. Are you suggesting Chinese universities are filing patents on stolen US intellectual property?
    – Ian
    Dec 26, 2022 at 19:23
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    @Ian not sure about stolen, but they do patent translated documents and publish translated papers, and some people fluent in Mandarin have suggested that many of those are on the level of Google Translate quality (personal communication). But the key here is still, of course, perverse incentives - subsidies are given away without real supervision, because targets have to be met.
    – Lodinn
    Dec 27, 2022 at 7:20
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    @Ian if you get money for every patent filed and google translate + not-yet-patented US ideas (maybe because of the higher bars there) are public, why not grab the free money
    – Hobbamok
    Dec 27, 2022 at 15:44
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    @Ian Yes, this definitely happens. I know a professor with a US patent that was stolen/re-patented in China. (I'm fuzzy on the exact details and whether or not backdating was involved)
    – Cole
    Dec 28, 2022 at 1:28
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My two cents:

  • It is part of their performance metric. In other words, having patents count toward their promotion or continuation of their employment.
  • Many academics own side businesses; there is a huge incentive to do so given their low salary. Hence, many seek to commercialize their research outputs.
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    Aren't these two points true in the USA as well? Dec 26, 2022 at 21:12
  • No idea. I'm not familiar with the system in the USA. I am aware that universities such as MIT like patents because its a huge source of income for the uni, but probably not others. Dec 26, 2022 at 21:26
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    Being a Chinese, I know these two points are true. No idea if they are the main reasons that Chinese universities hold many more patents than other universities.
    – Nobody
    Dec 27, 2022 at 3:01
  • I have no idea as well, but I somehow believe that there is a "patent" race in China, and the biggest opponent is US
    – Neuchâtel
    Dec 27, 2022 at 6:18
  • The secondary answer was sort of disproven by the other answer, Chinese university patents generate far less royalty on average, which is what we would see if financial exploitation of the patents were a priority.
    – Hobbamok
    Dec 27, 2022 at 15:45

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