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Mapping the landscape of international technology diffusion (1994–2017): network analysis of transnational patents


Global economic integration is driving countries and companies to increasingly pursue internationalized innovation activities. During this process, transnational patents are thought to play a vital role in protecting inventions and innovations abroad. This study investigates the structure of international technology diffusion and its evolution using transnational patent networks (TPNs) during the 1994–2017 period. The analyses are conducted using topological structures, centrality rankings, a three-layer visualization analysis (global, contextual and ego) and a block modeling analysis assisted by measures from social network analysis. The major findings are as follows: (1) TPNs present clear small-world phenomena, and the countries in the networks tend to establish more connections with other countries over time; (2) TPNs exhibit a highly uneven distribution in degree centrality and betweenness centrality, indicating a conspicuous global hierarchical structure of patent-expanding capabilities in various countries; (3) three-layer landscapes of TPNs illustrate the extreme imbalance in the ability of expanding transnational patents between South and North countries; (4) four blocks that play different roles in TPNs are distinguished, i.e., source, broker, beginner and absorber; and (5) 22 countries with high betweenness rankings achieve block-level transitions; among these countries, China and Singapore are highly typical examples. This paper argues that developed countries are actively using the monopoly power granted by transnational patents to shape a new world system. This study concludes with a discussion of policy implications for developing countries.

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  1. Here, transnational patents are defined as applications filed with the patent office of a given country by the first named applicant belonging to another country. When a transnational patent application enters the national phase, a clear cross-border relationship will be formed. There are usually several options when filing a transnational patent, including the direct or Paris route and the PCT route. The direct or Paris route implies that an actor can directly file separate patent applications simultaneously in all countries in which the actor would like to protect its invention or after filing in a Member State of the Paris Convention, the actor files separate patent applications in other Paris Convention countries within 12 months of the filing date of the first patent application, giving the actor the benefit of claiming the filing date of the first application in all these countries. The PCT route implies that an actor can file an application under the PCT directly or within the 12-month period provided by the Paris Convention from the filing date of a first application, and the application is valid in all Contracting States of the PCT.

  2. WIPO is a global forum for intellectual property services, policy, information and cooperation. Its main objective is to lead the development of a balanced and effective international intellectual property system that ensures administrative cooperation among the intellectual property unions.

  3. The PPH is a system that facilitates the reduction in duplication of efforts when a patent application is filed in multiple countries. Work sharing allows patent examiners in one office to leverage the work already performed in another office.

  4. The tournament effect is the difference between the equilibrium payoffs of the firms in the presence and absence of patent protection when all firms do R&D.

  5. The data regarding the transnational patent subjects of the WIPO statistics include the sovereign states, dependent territories of certain sovereign states, and several regional IP offices. In this study, the regional IP office was excluded, but we did not merge the dependent territories with their sovereign states. For example, Hong Kong and Macao, which are affiliated with China, are still considered actors in the analysis of TPNs. Therefore, although the remainder of this paper does not distinguish between “country” and “region”, the authors do not suggest their independence in national sovereignty.

  6. The national phase entry is a necessary procedure for obtaining transnational patents in designated countries. Considering the example of PCT, an actor can seek patent protection for an invention in numerous countries simultaneously by filing a single transnational patent application instead of filing several separate national or regional patent applications. This procedure usually involves several significant processes, including filing, international search, international publication, and international preliminary examination (optional), and ends with a transfer to selected national or regional offices. This transfer must be performed 30 months or 2.5 years after the priority year. However, all follow-up applications in foreign countries must be filed within the first year after the first application according to the standard rules of the Paris Convention.

  7. The adjacency matrix represents the edges, and the value of the matrix element in row i column j is one if there is an edge between those nodes and zero otherwise. In directed networks, the adjacency matrix is unsymmetrical.


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The authors would like to thank the support from Open Foundation of ISTIC-CLARIVATE ANALYTICS Joint Laboratory for Scientometrics (No. H20180166) and National Social Science Foundation of China (No. 15BTQ047).

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Correspondence to Xiang Yu.

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Yang, W., Yu, X., Zhang, B. et al. Mapping the landscape of international technology diffusion (1994–2017): network analysis of transnational patents. J Technol Transf 46, 138–171 (2021).

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  • International technology diffusion
  • Transnational patents
  • Social network analysis
  • Intellectual property rights
  • World system

JEL Classification

  • N30
  • O33
  • O34
  • R11
  • R12