Overview of the PCT “International” Patent Application

Patents are granted on a country by country basis. If a company is considering “international” patent protection, that is to say patent applications in multiple countries, there are two primary approaches:

1. Filing patent applications on a country by country basis directly in the patent office of those countries – This can present several concerns. First, it forces the company to select the target countries early, prepare the patent applications, and pay the fees for each selected country early in the process. At this early stage of product development, the company may not yet know which countries are desirable for pursuing patent rights. Furthermore, there are timing issues in filing the patent applications in each country which must be followed to avoid the loss of patent rights. Fortunately, agreements such as the Paris Convention permit a one year timespan for filing of the patent applications within the multinational patent family instead of having to file all of the applications on one day.

2. The Patent Cooperation Treaty (PCT) streamlines and provides more flexibility in the filing and expenses of multiple patent applications compared to direct filings in the national patent offices. Using the PCT procedure, the applicant initially needs only to file a single patent application in the receiving office for which the applicant is eligible. This initial filing accords the applicant a single international filing date and preserves the option to direct this patent application to selected PCT member countries at a later stage. Although more than 125 countries are currently a party to the PCT, the company should confirm that its likely target countries are parties to the PCT. Notable non-member countries in Asia include Taiwan and in South America include Argentina.

After the PCT patent application is filed, the International Search Authority (commonly the United States Patent and Trademark Office, the European Patent Office, or the Korean Patent Office) will perform a search on the PCT patent application for the most relevant prior art and deliver a written report regarding the patentability of the subject invention. This international search report can help the applicant to decide whether it would be worthwhile to seek national protection, and if so, in which countries. Optionally, while still in this international stage, the applicant may amend the application and “demand” a preliminary examination by an International Preliminary Examining Authority (IPEA). This is typically requested when the initial search report is not favorable.

The applicant selects the desired PCT member states before moving into the next stage (“national” or “regional”), where the international application and the search results are transmitted to patent office of the selected countries. Typically within 30 months from the filing date of the international patent application, the applicant continues the patent application process in the desired countries, where the patent application will be examined according to the patent laws and procedures of each of those selected countries. It is at this stage where the cost of preparation and fees multiply based on the number of countries selected, due to translations, revisions, filing fees, and other expenses. During the examination, some patent offices place great weight on the ISA and IPEA search reports (often saving time and money) while others will perform their own search. The applicant then prosecutes the application until the patent is hopefully granted.

Each of the two primary international filing approaches has advantages and disadvantages, especially in light of the business plan. The PCT patent application can preserve the option for  filing in many countries for a relatively low upfront cost. It also effectively permits more time to select target countries and more flexibility on the timing of the spending. Additionally, the PCT option can be combined with other agreements such as the patent prosecution highway. This makes the PCT an effective tool in international intellectual property strategy.


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3 Key Terms of a Patent License

Congratulations! You’ve filed your patent application. The next step is for the inventor to commercialize the newly created intellectual property. The three primary options are to completely assign the patent rights to another party, license the patent rights, or to manufacture, market, and sell the product disclosed in the patent application. Frequently, inventors wish to maintain some level of rights in the invention and do not wish to manufacture, market, and sell the product or process described in the patent application. For this reason, inventors often choose to license their technology. While the inventor is creating a list of potential licensees and creating a marketing plan for those potential licensees, he or she should also start thinking about the terms of a patent license. There are many options to think about for a patent license but three key terms include:

1. Payments – The most well known approach for payments are royalties. Royalties are typically agreed upon as a percentage of net sales, but there are also other methods of compensation. For example, the royalty may be a fixed amount for the term of the license, a fixed amount per year,  or a fixed amount per unit sold. The royalty rate varies and is influenced by factors such as:

  • The industry of the product
  • Whether the technology is a complete self-contained product or an improvement to an existing product
  • Whether the technology is patent pending or the patent has issued
  • Current market penetration of the product
  • The number and nature of competing products

2. Termination – What causes the license to come to an end?

  • Time – The license may be for a fixed term.
  • Time Period – For example, as long as the patent is enforceable.
  • Ongoing Performance Metrics – Minimum annual net sales, minimum annual royalties, minimum unit sales
  • Milestones – Where the product is a pharmaceutical, the license may be valid for a certain period after FDA approval

3. Geography – The licensor may wish to grant  licenses on a country by country basis (or other regional divisions).

4. Field of Use – Field of use licensing permits the technology owner to divide license rights among various market segments. For example, the licensor of a chemical patent may grant an exclusive license to one party for use in the field of human medicine and a second exclusive license to a second party for use in the field of veterinary medicine.

Bonus – Other valuable assets may be licensed in addition to the patent or patent application. Commonly, proprietary information, trade secrets, know-how, or trademarks may be licensed in addition to the patent rights. For example, a patent application may disclose the best manner of making a composition that was known at the time it was filed. Later, the chemists might have determined a more cost-effective method or environmentally friendly of synthesizing the composition. Software patent applications might have related source code. That other valuable proprietary information may be part of the technology transfer.

There are many other terms to consider, but the above terms should be helpful in the early stages  of planning for terms in a patent license.

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Misconception About First to File Provisions in Patent Act

In receiving questions from clients and others, some incorrectly believe that the new first-to-file provisions of the recently passed patent legislation mean that the first party to file a patent application unconditionally has lawful rights in the patent application, even where a second party misappropriates or derives the intellectual party from the first party. This is incorrect.

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Ten Common Concerns with Expanding Business to the United States

Ten Common Concerns with Doing Business in the United States

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Website Terms of Service and Privacy Policies – More Than Law

Some companies simply copy and paste the terms of service and privacy policies. This can be a costly mistake. The terms of service (“TOS”) and privacy policies (“PP”) should reflect the combination of legal, business, marketing, and ethical concerns of the company. Facebook has received a lot of criticism of its privacy policies over the years, ranging from the tracking beacon to the more recent outcry over granting Facebook application developers access to its user’s telephone number and address information. Even though Facebook’s action were likely permissible within its TOS and PP, the public outcry lead to a reversal of its policy, highlighting the extra-legal importance of the documents. [Edit: Facebook has resumed the policy.]

Part of the lack of attention to the TOS and PP is that they are, in fact, legal documents… so the website developers’ eyes glaze over reading the legalese (snooze). But because they are legal documents that can bind the company and the website visitor, proper attention should be paid to the documents. In hurriedly copying the documents from elsewhere, a meaningful TOS and PP for an opinion blog, a product website, an adult services website, a B2B cloud service, a server penetration business, etc. may not be implemented. Each type of business has its unique legal issues that should be addressed. All the terms from one set of documents may not be intended, useful, and/or enforceable in different business use cases.

As a binding document, the TOS and PP can positively and negatively affect the direction of the business, including the monetization strategy. Facebook started with its users segmented in different silos, namely their schools. Originally, one needed a .edu email address in order to join and communication was generally limited to other people having emails with the same domain name. More recently, Facebook’s growth strategy is almost the opposite of that original strategy. It now encourages everyone to join and create relationships that did not previously exist. An inflexible TOS and PP may not have permitted that strategic change in direction.

Contrast that business scenario with the PP policy of the former eToys.com website. It read in part:

eToys respects your privacy. We do not sell, rent, loan or transfer any personal information regarding our customers or their kids to any unrelated third parties. Any information you give us about yourself or your kids is held with the utmost care and security and will not be used in ways to which you have not consented.

At a quick glance, that seems a respectable policy. However, the company went bankrupt. As the customer data was one of the valuable remaining assets in the bankruptcy estate, there was a dispute over the sale of the eToy.com customer list. In other words, the documents affected the ability of investors, creditors, and successors to recover value.

The potential reach of the documents as a whole (as well as the language of the above section) is further highlighted by the recent purchase of the free to use OkCupid.com dating website by the paid use Match.com website. If OkCupid had a privacy policy of similar to that of the above quoted eToy privacy policy, there may be questions whether Match.com is an “unrelated third party,” impacting any possible integration plans. In addition to the legal question, there would be a business valuation question for OkCupid and Match if OkCupid had been marketed with a strong privacy expection. OkCupid users may then leave in droves, decreasing the potential value of OKCupid to Match.com.

It may seem counterintuitive, but the TOS and PP can support (or detract from) your marketing efforts. Currently, the industry trend is to move to the cloud. However, two key reasons why businesses are hesitant to move to the cloud are downtime and data access/use concerns. A cloud service provider of B2B applications where users enter valuable, sensitive business data has a more compelling message when it can state that the privacy policy explicitly states that business data will only be used for the purpose of the application and will not be processed individually or in the aggregate for marketing purposes.

Again, it may seem counterintuitive that the TOS and PP dating can indicate the culture of a company, but podcast and technology guru Leo Laporte deactivated his Facebook account citing poor privacy control for a user account and stating that Facebook had incentive to not provide strong privacy (Note: he has since recreated a Facebook account). Yours truly only maintains test accounts on Facebook for similar reasons. In fact, Facebook’s privacy issues lead to startup Diaspora’s raising of ~ $200,000 based on creating a privacy oriented distributed social network. (Edit: And that little project called Google+)

A more pointed illustration of lack of ethics illustrated via the TOS and PP was shown in some now defunct dating websites. Those websites would send messages to male subscribers of the website that appeared to be from interested women. A few jilted men suspected that the messages weren’t from interested women and complained to the website operators suspecting that it was a ruse to entice them to sustain their subscriptions. The website “customer service” pointed those men to the terms of service, which stated that messages may be sent through the system from “likenesses” (read non-existent women) based on those men’s profiles and interests…. Those “unique” terms may be enforceable, but they are still ethically questionable. You can imagine that reputation of the company.

The above illustrations aren’t to endorse one approach over another but they should highlight that even though the terms of service and privacy policy are “contracts,” they should drafted to reflect the legal, business, marketing, and ethical goals of your company. Are your TOS and PP  Google’s Terms, StartPage’s Policy, Twitter’s Terms, or your own terms?

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