Two Patently Different Worlds

There’s been a lot of fuss about the Apple smart watch in the news lately. Something that didn’t escape the media’s notice was Apple’s snapping up of the US patent for the design. US-only though. The patent doesn’t extend to the international market, which means you can probably expect to see a lot of knockoffs in the coming months.

A diagram from Apple’s patent shows the basic design of the watch

And that’s kind of important. Patents are one of the cornerstones of modern industry – allowing inventors to recoup the research and development costs for new technology without having to worry about johnny-come-lately copycats. But they can also be used to muscle out potential competitors. Has anyone forgotten the slew of Samsung-Apple lawsuits?

And that’s just two companies in well-developed, affluent nations. When you start talking about patents in the globe as a whole, a new story emerges.


Click to see the interactive version!

The world’s patents are really dominated by just four countries – the United States, China, Japan and South Korea. It’s worth noting that the map up there is logarithmicwhich means every color change represents an entire order of magnitude more patents than the next one down.

In 2013, the United States got patents for 287,831 different inventions. Botswana got just eight.

Indeed, the World Intellectual Property Organization has acknowledged that there are just fundamentally different worlds here. “Considering the differences among countries,” they say on their website, “there might be a need to question the assumption of applying the same patent standard to all. A national strategy may need to be effectively set up on the basis of a country’s unique requirements and priorities.”

Patents are important. I’m not arguing that. But before we start digging trenches in what may be the next great iteration of the Apple-Samsung slogfest, let’s remember that this is a fight that most of the world doesn’t have access to.


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