2012 Australian Patent Grants: Healthcare Ascendant, as Microsoft Loses Top Spot


According to analysis conducted by Watermark, IP Australia (i.e. the Australian Patent Office) granted 19529 patents in 2012.  This is only a marginal increase on the 19471 Australian patents granted in 2011, after a big rise from 15856 in 2010.

While the number of patents granted annually by IP Australia appears to have plateaued, technically 2012 is nonetheless the sixth consecutive year of growth in patent grants.

While the number of patent applications filed may be a measure of innovation activity, so long as there remains a backlog of applications, the number of patents granted is primarily dependent upon the level of examination resources available in the Patent Office.  As IP Australia prepares for the implementation of the reforms introduced in last year’s Intellectual Property Laws Amendment (Raising the Bar) Act, the effort expended on examination of existing applications has apparently remained steady.

Top Australian patent recipients

The number of Australian patents granted to particular applicants reflects the final outcome of a series of decisions taken over a period of a number of years, i.e.

  • to seek protection of a new invention;
  • to do so by filing patent applications;
  • to apply in Australia in particular;
  • to maintain the Australian application through a number of stages at which it might be abandoned (e.g. examination request, response to examination reports, payment of annual continuation fees); and
  • to pay the fees at acceptance and grant of the patent.

Most companies in the top tiers of innovation have sophisticated processes in place for management of, and extraction of value from, their intellectual assets.  If an invention turns out to be of low quality or value to the business, the corresponding application us unlikely to survive all of these stages.  No company becomes a top patent holder by chance!

The top ten patent recipients for 2012 are listed in the table below, alongside the equivalent rankings from 2011.  It is interesting to see that there have been significant changes at the top of the Australian patents table, with only four companies from last year’s list remaining among the leaders.  These are: Microsoft, which was granted 70 fewer patents in 2012, dropping from first to sixth position; Qualcomm, which moved up from eighth to fifth, regaining three of the four positions it lost last year; Colgate Palmolive, rising from ninth to third; and Novartis, gaining just one position to be number two.

Top spot on the Australian chart for 2012 is the Johnson & Johnson-owned surgical supplies company Ethicon Endo Surgery.  Ethicon more than doubled the number of Australian patents it had received in 2011 (when it placed outside the top 10 at number 18), to reach a grand total of 250 for the year. 













 250 (+180)


LG Electronics



 177 (+29)




Colgate Palmolive

 130 (+27)




Aristocrat Technologies AU

 116 (+66)





 113 (+8)





 108 (-70)


Kimberly Clark


Hoffmann La Roche

 106 (+25)




3M Innovative Properties Co

 104 (+11)


 Colgate Palmolive



 102 (+33)




Hengdian Group Linix Motor Co

 97 (+47)


In 2011, no Australian companies were represented among the top ten recipients of Australian patents, with gaming technology company Aristocrat, and inkjet printer technology developer Silverbrook having fallen out of the list since 2010.  However, in 2012 Aristocrat bounced back, reappearing in fourth position on the table.

Silverbrook, on the other hand, received only four Australian patents in 2012, and for the first time since 2006 did not appear in the top 50 recipients of US patents, as compiled by patent research company IFI CLAIMS Patent Services.  In the past two years, however, printers based on the MEMJET technology, developed by Silverbrook, have finally started to appear on the market.

Also significant is that, for the first time, a Chinese company has featured in the top 10 recipients of Australian patents.  Electric motor manufacturer Hengdian Group Linix Motor Co received 50 Australian patents in 2011, and has increased this haul to 97 patents in 2012.  Coming in at number 10, this Chinese company has helped to displace (among others) a Japanese company (Daikin) and a Korean company (LG Electronics).

The diversity of top Australian patent recipients is once again, as in previous years, notable when compared with the US.  The top 50 list of US patentees is dominated by companies from the information technologies and communications (ICT) sector, while it is not necessary to look any further than the top 10 in Australia to find a number of industries represented.

Healthcare appears to have been a major rising star in 2012, with not only Ethicon leaping into top spot, but also Novartis and Hoffmann La Roche making substantial gains.

What’s in store for 2013?

As noted above, major Australian patent law reforms come into effect in April this year.  These changes are likely to affect the filing and management strategies of Australian patent applicants in the short term.  This should ensure that the examination resources within IP Australia continue to operate at full capacity, with a significant growth in the backlog of applications expected this year, while the total number of patents granted will remain approximately constant, or perhaps increase slightly.

We would also expect to see continuing volatility in the numbers of patents obtained by the top recipients, and in the makeup of the top 10.  Compared with the US, where the companies appearing at the top of the table remain relatively stable, significant changes occur year-to-year in Australia.

This is in part due to the fact that the total numbers of patents are smaller in Australia than in the US, so that smaller changes in numbers of patents granted to particular applicants can have a large impact on rankings.  Filing in Australia also tends to be more strategically directed to the characteristics of the market, in the sense that while a multinational company will tend to file a full portfolio of applications in the US, it will be more selective about what it files in smaller markets.

It will also be interesting to see whether Chinese companies continue to increase their holdings of Australian patents in 2013.

Overall, there is good reason to suppose that patents granted in Australia are relatively representative of the value of the corresponding inventions within the Australian market.  However, for any company with limited resources to devote to obtaining patents, it is important to apply sound processes for strategic management and protection of intellectual assets to ensure that maximum value is extracted from the investment in patenting across all active markets.

by Mark Summerfield