This paper challenges the idea that patent counts provide reliable indicators of innovation in cross-country assessments. The authors argue that national differences in patent systems — how and why patents are granted and standards of examination — make comparisons across countries difficult at best, inaccurate at worst.

They urge readers to be cautious in interpreting the World Intellectual Property Organization findings that suggest the geography of innovation is changing — based on a sharp rise in patent counts in north-east Asia. The authors' own analysis of Chinese patent applications and legal frameworks in Brazil, India, Europe and the United States shows wide differences in the value of patents across regions.

They recommend developing a proper set of indicators for monitoring innovation capacities, particularly in developing countries.