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Decline of the Garden Shed Inventor?

By Nicola Kimblin
Decline of the Garden Shed Inventor?

The UK Intellectual Property Office (IPO) has issued a new research report exploring the changing behaviours of UK patent applicants and the possible driving forces behind them. With applications to the IPO in decline and strong growth in applications to the European Patent Office (EPO) over the same period, it would be natural to assume that applicants were switching from filing in the UK to filing at the EPO. However, the picture that emerges from the new report looks quite different.

The research analysed and compared trends in patent applications made to the IPO and the EPO over a twenty year period (2000-2020). That puts the impact of the 2008 recession right in the middle of the report's trend-showing graphs. Unsurprisingly, the research found an accelerated turnover amongst IPO applicants having larger portfolios, i.e. bigger customers, during the period of economic disruption after 2008. However, the overall number of applications from this group recovered and has held steady since, marking a turning point in the previous decline in IPO applications from 2000 up to the end of the recession.

The effect of Brexit-related uncertainty is clear in the sharp downturn in applications from non-UK applicants, particularly from the US, non-UK Europe and China, from 2017-2019. The EPC is independent of the EU, so Brexit does not affect the UK's membership of the EPC (or the ability of UK-based firms to represent applicants). Hence, the period of decline matches the period before the UK's withdrawal took effect and certainty for the future of the UK was somewhat restored. Total applications without UK applicants, including from each of the US, Europe and China, sharply turned back up in 2020, continuing the overall upward trend in the last decade, in spite of the global COVID-19 pandemic.

With applications from non-UK applicants and big IPO-users holding more steady, the Brexit-blip aside, a large part of the downward trend in applications to the IPO has been driven by reduced applications from smaller UK-based applicants. A further clue lies in comparing the declining trend in UK applications over the twenty year period with the more steady rate of publication of UK patent applications and grant of UK patents. This suggests that it is more spurious patent filing activity that is mostly in decline. In fact, the group of applicants most responsible for the decline in filings is individuals filing single or a small number of applications in their own names, rather than the name of a company. Applications from this group have been in decline over the full 20 year period without much impact from the 2008 recession or other factors.

So the British hobbyist inventor, or at least the hobbyist inventor with an interest in the IPO, seems to be disappearing. Anyone feel like heading to the garden shed?

The full IPO report "The changing profile of users of the UK patent system" can be found here.