Protecting innovation on a global scale

01 February 2016

Intellectual Property (IP) is a key business asset, particularly for innovative companies developing new products and processes. Patents are one form of IP and can be used to protect innovations for 20 years.

With companies rarely operating in only one country, due consideration must be given as to how to protect inventions globally. Unfortunately, there is no such thing as a global or international patent, and in most cases it is therefore necessary to file a patent application in each country in which you wish to obtain patent protection. This can seem costly, daunting and difficult to manage, but by collaborating with a patent attorney who understands your business the process can be straightforward and costs can be managed more easily.

Patent attorneys are engineers or scientists by degree, and therefore have the ability to understand your invention and work out how to protect it. They have a good understanding of the different systems and procedures that need to be adhered to in the major countries. From the outset your patent attorney is in a good position to prepare your patent application in order to maximise the chances of success in your key countries. There are many procedural differences between countries, but if your invention is eligible for patent protection in Europe, it should be patentable in most other countries. Historically the US have been willing to grant patents for business methods and other inventions not accepted for patent protection in Europe. However, this is changing in view of some recent court decisions and it seems as if the US will become more strict on what is patentable. 

Governments have worked together to establish a number of agreements and treaties to simplify the procedure and reduce the cost of obtaining patent protection across the globe. For example, the “Paris Convention” enables you to file your first application in one country, deferring patent filings in other countries by 12 months, allowing you to get an idea of the commercial value of your invention before committing to multiple overseas applications. The “Patent Cooperation Treaty” (PCT) allows a single “international” application to be filed, but after two and a half years it must be converted into applications in individual countries. This can be useful for deferring costs; allowing you to have a better understanding of the potential commercial success of your invention before committing to multiple patent applications. 

For some time now, the EU member states have been working on a “unitary patent” which would result in a single unitary patent that covers the whole EU. Under the current system, you can apply for a European patent, but when granted it splits into a handful of national rights. It is hoped that the unitary patent will make patent protection and enforcement cheaper in Europe.

It is rarely wise for a company to file patent applications in every country as it is likely that the costs involved in obtaining a patent application in a country of minimal importance will not be justified by the financial return from sales in that market. When creating an IP strategy detailing the countries you are looking to patent in, consider your main sales markets and manufacturing bases, as well as those of your competitors. For example, if you produce electronic products for the European market only, you may wish to consider patenting the invention in China where it could be easily manufactured. My advice is to spend your money wisely: if you use all of your IP budget on protecting one invention in tens of countries, you may end up compromising on the protection of other inventions due to a lack of funds.

There are also lesser-known forms of IP protection that can be used to your advantage. “Utility models” can be used to protect inventions and offer many of the same benefits as patents. Although they are typically of a shorter duration, they can usually be obtained quickly and cheaper and the barrier to obtaining them is often lower. Utility models can therefore be a good choice for incremental improvements or for products of a short life-span. “Registered designs” are also a great choice if the innovation relates to the aesthetic appearance rather than the function. Like utility models, registered designs can usually be obtained quickly and inexpensively and are a good deterrent to those looking to copy or counterfeit.

Overall, although protecting your innovation across multiple countries can seem daunting, with the right advice and a clear IP strategy based around your commercial objectives the process can be straightforward and predictable. 

Our Expert

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