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Patent applications declining for a decade, C.D. Howe study suggests

A new study from the C.D. Howe Institute suggests Canadians are filing fewer bright ideas these days through patent applications.
In 1877, inventor Henry Williams filed a patent for this device, a paddle-wheel for use on steamships that the industry quickly adopted. Canadian think tank C.D. Howe says Canadians are filing fewer patents for new inventions than they used to. (John Dillaber/Associated Press)

A new study from the C.D. Howe Institute suggests Canadians are filing fewer bright ideas these days through patent applications.

The Toronto-based think-tank says all provinces have seen a decline in application rates over the past decade.

Generally speaking, Canadians are very good at inventing things — and filing for patents — in utilities, construction and computers and electronics, relative to other sectors. "However, the pharmaceuticals and medical equipment sector has a low share of Canadian inventors applying for patents for the Canadian market," the think-tank said.

By region, Alberta and Ontario consistently outperform the national average in domestic patent applications per capitaBy contrast, the Atlantic provinces are not producing a large share of patents, the study says.

The institute says Quebec ranked third in patent applications behind Alberta and Ontario, which looked at more than a million patent applications filed between 1990 and 2012. B.C. was fourth between 1990 and 2004, but has been bested by Saskatchewan ever since 2005.

Manitoba was next, ranking well above the Atlantic provinces.

Fewer patents being filed

In the mid 1990s, Canadians were filing for about 25,000 patents a year, on average. That jumped to more than 40,000 a year by 2007, but has fallen ever since the recession. Today the figure averages below 35,000 patents a year.

The report is quick to note that there isn't a direct line between innovation and patents and admits that a lot of the former can be happening without the latter. But patent applications are a useful proxy because, unlike R&D spending, patent applications "represent a direct outcome of the research process," C.D. Howe says.

The report suggests that Canadian inventors are increasingly looking to global markets. Eighty-two per cent of patent applications by Canadian inventors are made abroad, the report noted.

The report also suggests that a significant number of patent applications are actually doing the opposite of what they are designed to do — they're stifling innovation by making a patent on something you have no intention of using, just so somebody else can't.

The C.D. Howe report estimates up to 40 per cent of Canadian patents are in that latter category.

With files from The Canadian Press

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