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Dismantling the barriers

Dismantling The Barriers:
Pan-European Survey On The Use Of Patents And Patent Information By Small To Medium Sized Enterprises (SMEs)


The third pan-European research survey commissioned by Derwent focuses the patenting activities of small to medium sized enterprises (SMEs), and on their patent information search behaviour. The research was carried out among 974 European SMEs across four industry sectors: chemical, pharmaceutical, engineering and other manufacturing.
What the research shows is that only a minority of SMEs in Europe use the patent system at all, and that there is a clear relationship between use of the patent system for patent protection, and use of patent information.
It also shows that European SMEs are very infrequent users of patent information overall, and that the development of Internet patent information services has had little impact in this sector so far. The survey reveals that once identified, barriers to patenting activities can be effectively lifted. It also shows that the benefits of patent databases and National Patent Offices as valuable sources of patent information are not currently well understood by SMEs. The provision of easier access, better/easier facilities to search databases, and training and information in order to understand patent information, were cited by SMEs as factors that could persuade them to increase their use of patent information sources, and therefore lift some barriers to the use of patents and patent information.

Key Findings

The survey shows that a minority of European SMEs are involved in patenting activities. Only 30% of the 974 companies surveyed1 have ever applied for or been granted a patent.
The majority of companies judge that patents are not relevant to their line of business and this is the overwhelming reason cited by 89.1% of non-patenting SMEs across all sectors and countries. There is a clear relationship between company size and patenting activity. A higher percentage of larger SMEs have applied for patents than smaller SMEs. The majority of patenting SMEs are in the largest employment group.
In the last ten years, the majority of patenting SMEs have applied for between one and five patents. Almost 60% of the patenting SMEs surveyed hold 10 patents or less. A minority of SMEs undertake patent information searches. Searches are carried out on an infrequent basis and mostly to check if an invention has already been patented.

Country trends

The survey shows that there are important variations across countries in patenting activities. The lowest rate of patenting activity in Europe is found amongst UK SMEs. Unlike other European countries, UK SMEs primarily apply for national patents. The use of on-line/CD-ROM patent information sources is also the lowest in the UK.

French SMEs give a high importance to patents, but only 27.9% of them are likely to apply for patents. French SMEs undertake patent information searches for a wider range of reasons than in other countries including techno-commercial intelligence.

German SMEs are amongst the most active in patenting activities. An overwhelming reason cited for not patenting is that patents are not relevant to the company’s line of business. Italy has one of the lowest percentages of patenting SMEs, and patenting SMEs in this country generally apply for fewer patents than anywhere else.

Italy has the highest number of users of patent information sources. This reflects the fact that patents are not only considered as an industrial property protection instrument, but also as a source of other information that can be used for commercial purposes.

The Netherlands has a high percentage of patenting SMEs applying for World patents. A high percentage also judges that the spread of the Internet has changed their patent information search habits.

Spain has the highest level of patenting SMEs. National patents are the overwhelming category of patents applied for. A very low percentage of patenting SMEs are using patent information sources.

Scandinavian countries also have a high level of patenting SMEs, where SMEs judge patents as a particularly important form of industrial property protection.

Sector trends

The pharmaceutical sector ranks the highest in almost all measures of patenting activity and behaviour. This confirms previous Derwent research2. Almost half of the companies in this sector have been involved in patenting activities and identify patents as a very important form of industrial protection measure. SMEs in this sector are also frequent searchers of patent information sources.
Chemical companies are strong users of on-line/CD-ROM information sources, but are less likely to hold a high number of patents. Companies in engineering and other manufacturing sectors are low users of patents and patent information sources.

Background of the Study and Objectives

In 1998, Professor Charles Oppenheim, Loughborough University, (with Dr M Sheen) published a research report titled Barriers to the Use of Patent Information in British Small and Medium Enterprises. Based on questionnaire responses from 328 SMEs in the UK, supplemented by some face-to-face in-depth interviews, the report considered the level of use, and non-use, of the patent system and patent information by UK based SMEs. It considered the reasons for use and non-use, examined the patterns of use, and produced conclusions relating to patent law and patent information. This study extends the 1998 UK survey to other European countries and concentrates on a quantitative analysis of the use and non-use of the patent system and patent information sources in seven European areas, patterns of use, and reasons for use and non-use. The geographical areas covered are; UK, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Netherlands, and Sweden/Finland (Scandinavia).


The research was based around telephone interviews with samples of SMEs in the above areas (the original UK research used postal questionnaires). Where possible, the questions asked in the original survey were also asked in this survey to allow for some comparisons to be made. However, some additional questions were added notably relating to an SME’s use of the patent system, and to the role of the Internet. Companies with up to a maximum of 250 employees (the current European definition of SMEs) were chosen across four industry segments: chemicals; pharmaceuticals; engineering; other manufacturing. The original aim was to produce equal quotas across these four sectors but the problems associated with using general company databases produced slightly different quotas from country to country:

Sample sizes:

Area Chemicals Pharmaceuticals Engineering Other Total
UK 32 33 65 78 208
Germany 60 37 30 23 150
Italy 30 33 42 101 206
France 36 31 21 131 219
Spain 8 19 35 0 62
Netherlands 23 14 23 27 87
Sweden/Finland 5 14 13 10 42
Total 194 181 229 432 974

SMEs across the seven geographical areas were randomly selected in the four sectors.

Note: Not all the respondents were able to answer every question in the telephone survey. Survey results included in this report are based on the actual number of responses to specific questions. Details of the interview questions can be obtained from IRN Services.

This survey was undertaken by IRN Services:
Telephone: +44 (0)20 7251 4040
web site

How to order

Copies of this report can be obtained from Santa Rivelli,
Marketing Manager, Derwent Information,
14 Great Queen Street,
London WC2B 5DF, UK

or apply by fax [+44 (0)20 7344 2901] giving full return address details.