Last year, for the first time, more patent applicants were filed in China than in the United States. This surge reflects China’s increasing intellectual property maturity and growing pains, according to U.S. intellectual property lawyers and experts.

In a Dec. 11 announcement, the World Intellectual Property Organization reported that in 2011 China’s patent office took in 526,412 applications, compared to 503,582 in the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and 342,610 in Japan’s patent office.

Worldwide patent filings exceeded the 2 million mark, with 2.14 million filed last year. That’s a 7.8 percent boost over the 1.99 million applications filed in 2010.

“Sustained growth in IP filings indicates that companies continue to innovate despite weak economic conditions. This is good news, as it lays the foundation for the world economy to generate growth and prosperity in the future,” WIPO director general Francis Gurry said at a press conference in Geneva.

The numbers reflect a boost in innovation by Chinese nationals, said Stuart Meyer, an IP partner at Fenwick & West in Mountain View, Calif. He said it’s not just U.S. inventors wanting to get protection in China because it’s commercially important. “That’s a real sea change,” Meyer said.

Ultimately, such filing shifts could affect U.S. patent policy, which offers great protections for intellectual property producers, he said.

The balance is shifting a little bit because more U.S. companies are dealing with licensing intellectual property owned by foreign patentees, said Meyer.

“We’re the ones that don’t need such rigorous protection because we’re on the other side of the coin,” he said. “It changes the way we’re going to be thinking about this in the coming decades.”

The numbers are a milestone in the way innovation is distributed around the world, said Q. Todd Dickinson, executive director of the American Intellectual Property Law Association. “Clearly China is in growth mode in terms of research and development and patent filings track that closely.”

He also said China’s intellectual property system is maturing.

“Clearly they’re using IP to protect indigenous innovation,” Dickinson said.

The filings show that everyone wants to do business in China, but China also needs to improve patent enforcement, said Peter Toren, a partner at Weisbrod Matteis & Copley in Washington.

“I’ll be more impressed when I get the real sense that China is enforcing patent rights,” he said. “I want to see them allowing companies to really enforce the rights they have.”

@|Sheri Qualters, a reporter for The National Law Journal, can be contacted at squalters@alm.com.