Chinese ICT giant Huawei displayed both its and China’s intellectual property might at an event in Shenzhen on 8 June, called Broadening the Innovation Landscape 2022. But the event was either marred or enlivened (depending on your viewpoint) by a chorus of despair from European delegates.
But first, Huawei. According to the company, at of the end of 2021 it held more than 110,000 active patents, has been granted more patents than any other Chinese company, has filed the most patent applications with the EU Patent Office, and is ranked fifth in terms of new patents granted in the US.
Huawei’s Chief Legal Officer, Song Liuping, said of this impressive track record:
We firmly believe that protecting IP is key to protecting innovation. Huawei has filed more than 10,000 patent applications annually for the past two years. This is a record high for us.
We open up our innovations to the industry through patents. We are eager to license our patents and technologies to share our innovations with the world. This will help broaden the innovation landscape, drive our industry forward, and advance technology for everyone.
Speaking of the tough environment created by the pandemic over the past three years – a period dogged by controversy for Huawei in the long tail of Trump’s trade war with China – he added:
The harder things get, the more determined we are to invest in the future. In 2021, we increased our R&D investment to 142.7 billion yuan [$21.3 billion]. That's 22.4% of our total revenue. Both our R&D investment and percentage of revenue spent on R&D have reached a 10-year high.
This made Huawei the world's second largest investor in R&D according to the 2021 EU Industrial R&D Investment Scoreboard. Over the past few years, our annual investment in basic research has passed 20 billion yuan [$2.9 billion]
Heady stuff. Alan Fan, Head of Huawei’s IPR Department, said the value of Huawei patents in cellular technology, Wi-Fi, and audio/video codecs has been particularly strong:
In the past five years, more than two billion smartphones have been licensed to Huawei's 4G/5G patents. And for cars, about eight million connected vehicles licensed to Huawei patents are being delivered to consumers every year.
Eleven big ideas
Huawei then showcased what it sees as its top 11 recent inventions:
- an ‘adder’ neural network, which reduces power usage by avoiding multiplication.
- a multi-object interaction algorithm for autonomous driving.
- a system that marks individual optical fibers with a biometric iris-like identifier.
- full-precision floating-point computing.
- a new head-up display (HUD).
- a high-speed deterministic internet protocol.
- a solution for deploying remote core networks (kite networks).
- massive MIMO In-N-Out for 5G deployments.
- 5G Single Air, allowing different networks to use more shared spectrum.
- dual-active network-attached storage.
- a new device acceleration bundle.
The chorus of praise grew louder when Tian Lipu, President of the China chapter of the International Association for the Protection of Intellectual Property, added that the company is “constantly changing itself” and “constantly showcasing to the world the value of IP from China.”
Voices of doom
Few would doubt that. But not everyone speaking at the event was quite so on-message about the sheer quantity of Huawei and Chinese IP being worthy of praise.
In an impassioned speech, delivered remotely – at considerable volume and with dramatic hand gestures – former VP of the European Patent Office, Manuel Desantes, said of a fast-changing, technology-enabled world:
We have been changing, step by step, all our structures. All our socio-political, legal, and technical structures have been adapted to this type of change, but not our intellectual property system or our innovation system. Change is exponential, but our structures are completely unfit for a world that is exponential. We are in a world now in which only intangibles have value in our society.
So, for me the question is very simple: how to approach innovation and intellectual property in this new world. But the problem is the intellectual property system was born in the 19th Century, in the Industrial Revolution […] to reward those who created something new.
What matters now is not any more how many inventions or how many patents we manage to register, but how to ensure that all human all our societies benefit from the consequences of such inventions. So, it is a mistake to continue focusing on the success of intellectual property system, on the number of patent applications or the number of patents […] but instead to actually ameliorate quality of life for human beings.”
Slap in the face: delivered.
Then in a portentous postscript that further surprised his hosts, he added:
Please do forget that crises are no longer cyclical. Crises are now systemic. Companies like Huawei will have to learn to live in situations of permanent crisis. They will have to learn how to sail against the wind. So… good luck.
Huawei’s patent chief Fan noted:
You cannot imagine that, you know, we use all of our 200,000 [sic] patents to exclude our competitors from the market. It’s really about assuring among our competitors, and building the world together.
Despite Fan (mistakenly) doubling Huawei’s patent count, the Shakespearean or Greek tragedian chorus from offstage continued with Patrick Nijs, co-founder of the EU-China joint Innovation Centre, and a former Belgian Ambassador to China.
He said, somewhat balefully:
Does IP help in social development? My response is: no. Because in my opinion, as an outsider, as a kind of global viewer, the IP system has actually been invented to make sure that ‘the ones who have’ keep what they have to prevent ‘the one who doesn't have’ from reaching the same level. This is the origin of the IP system!
I understand that this is an issue which is very important for companies. […] But what we need, absolutely, to bring into this system of protection is our ecology. The challenges that we face are much bigger than we are anticipating today.
Corporations urgently need to shift away from a system of protecting their own intellectual assets to one of sharing and creating value for everyone, he explained, so that humanity can face “immense challenges”. So, for him, the key question should now be:
How can I lead the system of IP, not in order to serve particular interests, but to serve freely the creation of global goods which can help all of us to escape extinction.
Then he added:
What started as a celebration of Chinese ingenuity, progress, and IP stockpiling turned, unexpectedly, into a meditation on the future of mankind. This was both surprising for a sober, stage-managed event and hugely entertaining.
But one wonders why Europe’s chorus of existential disapproval was more muted during the 20th Century, when America was in the ascendant rather than China.