By Robert Evans
GENEVA (Reuters) - International filings for patent protection, a key indicator of technological innovation in major economies, hit an all-time record last year driven by growth in China and other middle- income countries, a United Nations agency said on Monday.
The World Intellectual Property Organization, which administers the global patent pact, reported that 2011 saw a 10 percent rise in applications to a total of 181,900.
"This shows that companies around the world continued to innovate last year despite the widespread uncertainty affecting the global economy," WIPO director general Francis Gurry said.
WIPO figures showed the United States, Japan and Germany, the long-time leaders in total applications, accounted between them for 58 per cent of total filings, but China, with a rise of 33.4 per cent on the previous year, was pushing them hard.
And the Chinese telecommunications equipment giant ZTE Corp <000063.SZ>, with 2,826 applications, pushed Japan's Panasonic Corp <6752.T>, which filed 2,463, out of top place among individual company filers.
Another major Chinese information technology manufacturer, Huawei Technologies Co <HWT.UL> was in third place, with 1,831 applications, the WIPO statistics showed. A previous leader, U.S. group Qualcomm Inc <QCOM.O>, dropped from third to sixth place.
Gurry told a news conference that applications last year under the global Patent Cooperation Treaty (PCT) that it supervises showed a geographic shift in innovation activity from North America and Europe to Asia.
Overall, Asian applications accounted for 39 per cent filed in 2010, while North America accounted for 28.3 per cent and Europe for 13.9 per cent.
Filings by the United States totaled 48,596, an increase of 8 per cent over 2010, and Germany's were 18,568, 5.7 per cent up on the previous year. But alongside China's huge surge Japan also increased its filings by 21 per cent to 38,888.
Elsewhere in western Europe the picture was mixed, with Switzerland, France and Sweden showing increases ranging from 7.3 per cent to 4.6 per cent, but the Netherlands was down 14 per cent, Finland and Spain by 2.7 per cent, and Britain by one per cent.
Gurry said the year showed growing innovative activity in large middle-income countries like Russia, whose filings were up 28 per cent, Brazil, with an increase of 17.2 per cent, and India, up 11.2 per cent.
Russian applications came from a wide range of sectors, led by electrical machinery, pharmaceuticals, transport and medical technology.
A report last December from ThomsonReuters based on data gathered for its Derwent World Patents Index showed that with domestic applications included China had become the top filer in 2011, ahead of the United States and Japan.
It said the Chinese government -- offering incentives for national companies to file patent applications -- was pushing for innovation in particular sectors including automobiles, pharmaceuticals and technology.
But legal experts said at the time that while subsidizing patents might increase the number of applications for protection filed it gave no indication of the quality of the innovations for which cover was sought.
Asked how far the rising application totals from emerging economies reflected quality, Gurry said on Monday there was no established way of measuring that.
"It is very difficult to track the quality of an invention," he told the news conference.
(Editing by Greg Mahlich)