China Is Getting Into The Patent Game For Alternative-Energy Cars

China is trying to get a leg up on the market for clean transportation by bulking up the rate it’s been filing patents. According to a recent report in Europe’s China Daily, China filed over 2,000 patents for alternative-energy cars in 2012, placing it just behind Japan and the United States, and dead even with Germany and South Korea:

With a worldwide push for sustainable, clean transportation, patents are vital to survival in the global new-energy vehicle industry, China Intellectual Property News reported.

China had filed more than 2,000 patent applications — 8 percent of the world total — for new-energy cars by the end of last year to share the third place with Germany and South Korea, according to the statistics from Thomson Reuters.

Japan ranks the first with nearly 9,000 patents, followed by the United States with 4,000, accounting for a respective 60 percent and 22 percent of the world total.

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. As The Economist put it, if an inventor has a genuinely good idea, 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 spend ever 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 up inequality.

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.

In February of 2011, for example, Butamax Advanced Biofuels, a joint venture between BP and DuPont, sued another advanced biofuels company, Gevo, for infringing their patent on a process to produce microbial-based biofuel.