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OECD's (Organisation For Economic Co-Operation and Development) definition:
a patent is an intellectual property right issued by authorized bodies to inventors to make use of, and exploit their inventions for a limited period of time (generally 20 years). Patents are granted to firms, individuals or other entities as long as the invention satisfies the following conditions: novelty, non-obviousness and industrially applicable. The patent holder has the legal authority to exclude others from commercially exploiting the invention (for a limited time period). In return for the ownership rights, the applicant must disclose all the information relating to the invention for which protection is sought. The disclosure of the information is thus an important aspect of the patenting system.
Patents statistics provide a good indicator of:
  • The innovative output of a nation;
  • The level of diffusion of technology knowledge;
  • The economically usable output of R&D.
Considering the average time lag of 3 to 5 years between the patent application date (the moment when the patent office receives the documents and filing fee from an applicant) and the grant date (the moment when the patent office issues a patent to the applicant), statistics of patent filings are a more timely measurement of the actual innovation capability than patent grants.

Source: Organisation For Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD): Compendium of Patent Statistics 2004.