By the numbers: Australia's lack of patent ideas

Is Australia behind the game when it comes to patenting new ideas?

Australians might have come up with the Hills Hoist, the Box Kite and the Black Box Flight Recorder, but we seem to be losing the race for ideas lately.

(Credit: Phil Dobbie/ZDNet)

In fact, when you look at the number of patents issued worldwide, we're hardly in the race. The World Intellectual Property Organisation tracks patents filed by residents of 162 countries; of the 495,000 registered in 2010, only 1178 (0.2 per cent) came from Australia. Basically, there was one patent filed for every 19,000 people. Compared to the US, where 107,792 patents were filed by residents — one for every 2900 people — that makes them seven times as inventive as the Aussies.

But the Americans are losing ground as well — to a tide of ideas from Asia. Japan, the land that brought us digital audio, the camcorder and pot noodles, is still going strong. Since the early Nineties, they have consistently accounted for more than a third of the world's patents. One in every 680 people is filing a patent each year, making them 28 times more inventive than Aussies.

Then there's the rising tide of inspiration coming from China. Yes, China. The country that used to specialise in ripping off designs from other parts of the world is now coming up with ideas of its own. Chinese residents have gone from accounting for less than 1 per cent of patents in the late Nineties, to 16 per cent in 2010 (the latest figures available).

We're not alone in our singular lack of ideas. Britain and Canada fair little better, and Iceland managed just seven patents in 2010. It's a concern though, surely, that in the emerging digital global economy where ideas are crucial, so few are coming from our neck of the woods.

Perhaps we can take comfort in the quality of some of our ideas — and in the ability to execute. It was an Australian company that worked with director James Cameron to design and build the Deepsea Challenger, the 12-ton sub that can plummet to depths greater than 11km. It's a feat many have described as comparable to space exploration, and it came out of a workshop in Leichhardt. It took out top prize in the Australian International Design Awards on Friday night.

Sadly, most of the other award winners came from overseas. And no mention of the fridge magnet that tells you when your dog needs worming; another Aussie invention for which we can all be proud.