China’s Patent Game for Clean-Energy Cars

With over 2000 patents for alternative-energy cars filed last year, China is biting into the market for clean transportation. From Jeff Spross at Think Progress:

China has actually been in the patent game for sometime. In 2011, the country’s patent office received more applications — for all forms of invention, not just green technology — than any other nation. At the same time, very few Chinese investors seek to patent their ideas abroad — less than 5 percent between 2005 and 2009. Generally speaking, if an inventor has an idea of genuine merit, they’ll seek to patent it as many places as possible. Concentrating merely on China’s office could be an indication that other incentives are driving the patent, such as the chance to snatch up a government subsidy.

The race between various countries to accrue patents in alternative-energy also raises the possibility of “patent wars,” such as those that have riled the world of software. Companies and interests attempt to round up and hoard patents in order to corner sources of revenue. That is, of course, very profitable for them, but it also tends to dampen innovation in the relevant industry. The spread of patents forces companies and inventors to spendever more time and money making sure every conceptual aspect of the technology they’re working on is in the legal clear, or is properly licensed. That drives up costs for the companies, for consumers, and slows down the creation of new products and technologies that can raise everyone’s well-being — like cars and other forms of transport powered by sustainable energy. It arguably even drives upinequality.

The problem is especially acute in the software world, where it’s especially difficult to organize who has the rights to what into a public and easily-searchable database. But in principle the inefficiencies and transaction costs that come with over-zealous competition for patents can afflict any industry, including green tech and green transportation.

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