Your intellectual property may be safe at home, but do those patents and trademarks sink or swim once they reach international waters? Businesses may want to pursue a patent or trademark outside the United States to preclude a competitor from using their trademark or from making, using or selling whatever is protected by their patent.
“You have to take proactive steps to protect your patents and trademarks outside the United States, because coverage is generally on a country-by-country basis.” says Scott McCollister, a partner with Fay Sharpe LLP.
“For example, if you have a patent in the U.S., it doesn’t have any extra territorial effect. Trademarks are generally similar. Some countries may have common-law rights which develop based on your use in that jurisdiction, but many countries are registration-based, so you have to procure a registration through that country’s national trademark office before you have any chance to preclude a third party from using your trademark.”
Smart Business spoke with McCollister about how companies can take their intellectual property international.
In what situations would it makes sense for a business to pursue international protection for its IP?
If a business is selling or anticipates selling in a particular territory, it may want to pursue patent or trademark protection in that jurisdiction .
Similarly, companies should consider procuring protection in areas where you and/or your competitor manufacture. Even if it’s not a large sales region, or if the products are shipped elsewhere for distribution, having patent protection in a jurisdiction where the relevant goods are manufactured can be extremely beneficial. If you or your competitor don’t manufacture or sell in a particular country, pursuing patent or trademark protection there is most likely an unnecessary expenditure of funds.
What are the main considerations for a business preparing to take its IP international?
Even in countries where you are commercially active, before you consider pursuing patent or trademark protection, you should do a cost-benefit analysis. Patents, in particular, are expensive to obtain and maintain. There are foreign agent fees, translation fees, government fees, prosecution fees and annuities.
Protecting a small volume of product sales in a country by filing a patent application probably doesn’t make a lot of sense if the cost of obtaining the patent is even a measurable fraction of the sales volume.
Furthermore, consider the lifespan of your product. If your product has a five-year lifespan, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to file an application in a country that takes years to grant a patent.
How can using a regional or international office reduce cost?
For each country you file in, you generally need a local agent who submits the patent or trademark application to that country’s patent/trademark office. Accordingly, for every national filing there are associated governmental expenditures and service fees paid to a local agent. However, using Europe as an example, we have the option of filing through a regional office, the European Patent Office (EPO), that has the ability to grant one patent that can be extended to any selected country within the European Community. In this manner, we can submit all patentability arguments before one examiner and employ only one European agent to perform the bulk of the work in the European region. Similarly, a significant cost savings can be achieved using the European Community Trademark Office to obtain a ‘European Community’ trademark registration rather than pursuing and maintaining multiple national registrations.
I also recommend using the Patent Cooperation Treaty (PCT) for international patent filings. One year after you file your U.S. application, you can file a PCT application. It is effectively an 18-month placeholder. I refer to it as a placeholder because the application cannot directly mature into a national patent. Rather, at the end of the 18-month period, you will need to file in any country (or region, if available) in which you are interested in obtaining coverage. Advantageously, during the 18-month period you receive a preliminary report on whether the idea is patentable or not.
This provides two primary advantages. First, if the review finds the idea is not patentable, you’ve spent a relatively small amount of money on a PCT application instead of a large amount of money filing the application in multiple countries.
Second, it buys you another year and a half to evaluate if the product is commercially relevant. Does it deserve protection or did it fizzle? It may have been a good idea at the time, but the marketplace didn’t accept it. Buying that extra year-and-a-half lets you evaluate how interested you really are in protecting the invention.
The same is true on the trademark side. Based on your company’s U.S. trademark filing, the Madrid protocol allows you to file on a worldwide basis through a single international agency, and have the trademark extended into countries you designate. A significant savings is achieved by avoiding hiring of a lawyer in every country.
What other steps do you recommend for businesses going international?
Assuming you satisfy these criteria and want to proceed, you can still be wise in how you spend your money. For example, procuring a patent in the eight countries with the largest economies in Europe and keeping that patent alive for 20 years is an expenditure in excess of $100,000.
However, if we pursue the patent in Germany, England, France and maybe a country where your competitor is headquartered (preferably through an EPO filing), we can achieve similar results for roughly half the cost. Moreover, your competitor may be unlikely to introduce product X in Europe if they are precluded by your patent from selling in a large percentage of the market. I believe with a little analysis we can often achieve the same result in Asia or South America, for example.
Lastly, I strongly encourage any company considering pursuit of IP coverage outside the U.S. to have an open dialogue regarding costs, risks, advantages, objectives and expectations with a patent and/or trademark attorney. Moreover, this is a complex topic and many of the observations outlined above are not applicable to all situations and can have certain limitations.
Scott McCollister is a partner with Fay Sharpe LLP. Reach him at (216) 363-9115 or firstname.lastname@example.org.