THE United States is holding on to a slim lead in the international race for American patents. Americans received 53.3 percent of the 96,727 US patents issued in fiscal year 1990 - the same share as in 1989. It marks the end of a long decline in US patent dominance - at least for the moment.
Some observers are now talking about an imminent American renaissance in innovation. "At the core of CEO issues this year is the determination of individual US companies to halt, and potentially reverse, the decline in US technology leadership," concludes a new Ernst & Young survey of 561 chief executives of US electronics companies.
According to the survey, 40 percent of the chief executives thought the nation's technology competitiveness would improve by 1995 - up from 25 percent a year ago.
"I would foresee the prospects that there would be increased creativity," adds Leonard Mackey, a New York patent attorney and president of the National Inventors Hall of Fame Foundation. The foundation was formed largely in reaction to rising concern that the nation was losing its creative edge.
The figures are startling. From 1963 to 1988, the share of US patents going to foreigners rose from 18.6 percent to 47.3 percent. As late as a year ago, some observers were suggesting the foreign share of patents would rise above 50 percent. Instead, that share declined slightly in 1989 to 46.7 percent and stayed there in 1990.
Patents give inventors 17 years to control the use of their inventions. Since its creation in 1790, the US Patent and Trademark Office has issued nearly 5 million patents on everything from the Wright Brothers' glider to the microprocessor.
US companies, which routinely grabbed the largest number of patents in the 1960s, have given ground in recent years. The top four US patent grantees last year were Japanese. Four US companies made the top 10 list: General Electric, Eastman Kodak, International Business Machines, and North American Philips.