updated 9/18/2009 9:19:31 AM ET 2009-09-18T13:19:31

American inventors filed the biggest number of international patent requests last year, but their lead appeared to be slipping against Asian rivals such as China during the first half of 2009, the U.N. patent agency said Friday.

The United States filed 53,521 of the 163,600 patent applications that went through an international treaty overseen by the Geneva-based World Intellectual Property Organization, or WIPO, in 2008.

Under the Patent Cooperation Treaty, for a flat fee of about $1,300 companies can file a request for patent protection in any of the 139 countries that subscribe to WIPO'S patent system — avoiding the need to make individual filings in each country.

The U.S. was far ahead of Japan's 28,744 filings, and Germany with 18,428, last year.

In terms of individual filers, telecoms company Huawei Technologies Co. of China led the ranking with 1,737 applications last year, followed by Japanese electronics maker Panasonic Corp. with 1,729 and Dutch Philips Electronics with 1,551.

The U.S. corporation that filed most international patent applications is 11th-ranked Qualcomm Inc., the wireless communications chip maker, with 907 applications.

Preliminary figures for 2009 show that American inventors were harder hit by the global downturn than their counterparts in China, where economic growth has remained strong.

"International patent applications from the United States so far for the first six months of this year were down by 14 percent," said WIPO director-general Francis Gurry. "But from China they were up 19 percent."

The fact that China's economy continues to expand, and a growing awareness of the international patent system among inventors there, have boosted filings this year, said Gurry.

The figures are only preliminary, but data received so far indicate that international patent filings worldwide have gone down this year, he said.

WIPO has yet to give precise global figures on how many fewer patents are being filed through the patent treaty, but Gurry said it would likely be a drop of 5 percent.

Last year international patent filings grew 2.3 percent compared with 2007, according to the World Intellectual Property Indications 2009 report.

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