In 2000 China made up 780, or 0.8% of the total, of published WO “World” patent applications. By 2009 this had climbed to 7,900, or 5%. Over 480,000 patent specifications were published in China itself in 2009. This is an immense number. Originally most were by foreigners, but this has shifted, and now most of these specifications are by residents – only 34,000 cited American priority filings, and 2,500 British filings. They (and the publications in the World system) are of course in Chinese. The problem then is in identifying and reading them.
The main applicants in the World system are Huawei Technologies, which with 1,843 publications in 2009 was actually second only to Panasonic, and ZTE Corporation. China is making a big effort to move up the “value chain” in manufacturing – to move from assembling products made with Western technology to innovating their own products – and the statistics reflect this.
Some do appear in translation. Patent applications of Chinese origin that go through the European Patent system appear mostly in English (German and French are the other options) and only accounted for some 1,600 documents in 2009. In the US system, they accounted for 6,200 published applications in 2009.
China publishes A and B (unexamined and examined) patents, and U or Y utility models (for simpler inventions), which nowadays are not examined to see if they are novel. Utility models account for about half of China’s patent output.
There is an English interface search mask on the Chinese patent office website. Some documents can be machine translated in the same database (for free).
There is also the CNPAT database with an English interface search mask which also offers free machine translations. Designs are included in this site.
And there is also the CNIPR C-Pat Patent Search System. All three sites are free to use.
I have only glanced at these databases, as I instinctively use Western sites. If you need a copy of a Chinese patent document you should turn to them if Western sources fail.
An alternative is to use the Espacenet database with its international coverage. Asking for CN as a publication number limits the search to Chinese documents. Occasionally a foreign “equivalent” (usually in English) will be available, which is shown by a PDF icon.
At the time of writing, English titles and abstracts were available in up to about June 2010, and the actual specifications could be found to about September 2010. The “Mosaics” format can be selected to see the drawings only, which may be helpful. IPC classes seemed to be available for all published applications, that is, for September 2010, but there is a lag for applicant names, which seem to be present only up to June.
All this is of course just a brief summary of some key points (there are other databases, including for specialist topics). There is more on the China Virtual Helpdesk page from the European Patent Office, including advice on the numeration system and how to search Chinese language interfaces.