Patent Law: Finally Something World Leaders Can Agree On

By Nathaniel DeLucia

One of the most important discussions in international and United States law is currently underway, although most Americans probably have no idea, that of patent law reform.  Yes I know, patent law is not nearly as sexy as “counter-terrorism” or “Ebola” (though this does involve patent law as I will explain later).  However, the recent trend to reform and unify the world’s patent laws has the potential to have a tremendous impact on international trade.

Last month, the world’s top IP leaders (the U.S., Japan, Korea, China, and the EU) announced efforts to reduce differences in patent laws. 

Before we dive into current events, it’s important to get some background information.  To start, patent law is fundamentally a matter of domestic law; each country has its own patent laws and its own patent system.  Thus, if a company wants protection in multiple countries, they will have to file patent applications in each relevant country.  

Recently, a number of global events and developments have fostered an international movement ripe for patent reform and harmonization.  For instance, the United States enacted the America Invents Act (AIA) in 2011, shifting the American patent system into a first to file model and bringing the US in line with the rest of the world.   Following this dramatic domestic change, international cooperation has also increased.  Numerous additional countries signed the PCT program, an international program that helps members of participating countries streamline the process for filing patent applications in multiple countries.  Additionally, the U.S. expanded its “workshare” program, which allows the U.S. patent office to communicate with foreign patent offices in an effort to share results, reduce redundancy, and increase efficiency. 

Recent crises, such as the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, have also fostered cooperation and a drive to  harmonize complex patent laws. The recent Ebola outbreak has triggered massive international efforts to bring together patent owners from different countries in an attempt to pool resources and offer potentially life-saving drugs at affordable prices.  In response, the international community created “patent pools”, and, although they do not exemplify traditional patent “law,” they represent the current political trend toward centralized patent authority.

Consequently, at last month's meeting of global IP leaders, the precedent for international patent law collaboration was already in place.  The world leaders used the meeting a chance to publically announce the future direction of the unification trend.  At the meeting, the world leaders announced that they will be focusing their efforts on increasing communication between their nations’ patent offices.  This will be a huge step toward harmonization, as it would simultaneously increase efficiency (by allowing patent agents in different countries who have worked on the same patent application to talk with each other and share results) and decrease costs by reducing redundant research.  These steps toward greater unification of patent laws also tremendously benefit industry.  In today’s global economy, it’s exceedingly rare that a company would want to launch a product in only one country.  Thus, by enhancing communication between patent offices and decreasing the differences in their laws, the costs of obtaining patent protection will be substantially reduced.  This will lead to more products being offered in more countries and at lower prices, as there will no longer be a fear of lack of protection.  The impact this increased availability of products will have on international trade has yet to be seen, though it will no doubt be profound.

Photo depicts Opening Session of WIPO Assembly | Wiki Commons