GENEVA (AP) -- The United States is again the favored destination to patent inventions after 43 years in which Japan and the now-defunct Soviet Union held the lead, a U.N. report said Thursday.
The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office received nearly a quarter of the 1.76 million patents filed worldwide in 2006 -- the latest years for which figures are available -- according to the World Intellectual Property Organization, or WIPO.
The Soviet Union briefly overtook the U.S. in 1964 at a time when technology was seen as the key to winning the space race -- not to mention more mundane battles back on Earth. By 1970 Japan eclipsed both the superpowers, holding onto its lead until 2005.
But while patent filings are a sign of strong innovation at home and healthy economic interest from abroad -- only about half of the 426,000 filings in the U.S. in 2006 came from American inventors -- the effort of processing so many application each year is causing a growing backlog at the U.S. patent office, WIPO's deputy director-general Francis Gurry warned.
More than one million unprocessed applications piled up at the U.S. patent office in 2006 and that backlog is growing, causing "a very significant problem," Gurry told journalists at a news conference in Geneva.
Clearing the outstanding applications alone would take 2 1/2 years, he said.
Inventors whose patents have not been granted face legal difficulties enforcing their rights, such as not being able to take out injunctions to stop others stealing their ideas, Gurry said.
The process of recouping losses through the courts once the patent goes through can be costly, he added.
Japan faces a similar problem, with more than 830,000 patents awaiting examination.
Gurry said various measures are being considered to speed up the registration process, including reducing the need for different patent offices to duplicate each others' work.
For now, efforts to harmonize countries' patent laws are too politically contentious, he said.
The report also disclosed that Japanese inventors still register the most patents, followed by Americans, South Koreans and Germans.
Chinese applicants filed 32 percent more patents at home and abroad compared with the previous year, cementing the country's position among the five nations that account for over three-quarters of all patent requests.
China's economic rise has also been mirrored by the share of worldwide patents held by Chinese-based inventors, which reach 7.3 percent in 2006 compared with 1.8 percent in 2000.
"The Asian tigers are certainly increasing their profile significantly and quickly in the patent area," Gurry said. "That is a shift that is occurring in the balance of technological power around the world."
One of the effects of this is that more and more patents are registered in non-European languages, posing a problem for American and European inventors who have to make sure the ideas they want to protect haven't been developed elsewhere already.
Gurry said the impact of the current global economic downturn on patent filings was difficult to predict with certainty, but that it will likely cause companies to reduce the number of patents they file or maintain.
Companies may place less commercially viable inventions in the public domain to avoid competitors filing a patent, or they may keep the technology secret until economic prospects improve, he said.