US Patent & Trademark Office
The USPTO operates a firsttoinvent system where, in theory, a patent for an invention should be granted to the person who
first conceived then reduced the invention to practice (for example, by empirical verification of an idea) and, subsequently,
filed a patent application. This person may be challenged under an interference procedure for entitlement to a patent by another
person who subsequently files a patent application for the same invention. Interference procedures are costly and lengthy,
and the need to provide evidence of conception of an invention and reduction to practice is one reason why any innovators
interested in obtaining US patents for their inventions are encouraged to keep meticulous records of relevant R&D.
In the US, an invention is considered to belong to the inventor or inventors, although the invention can be assigned to another
party. Inventors should be correctly determined and named on a patent application, as deliberate misrepresentation can render
a subsequent US patent unenforceable.
Rather than absolute novelty, the USPTO implements relatively complicated laws on what constitutes noveltydestroying disclosures
for a patent application. An important law is that a disclosure less than 12 months prior to the date of the patent application
need not count against the application — the socalled 'novelty grace period'. However, if another party has disclosed the
invention in a printed publication anywhere in the world, or in public use or on sale in the US, within 12 months of a patent
application, then the applicant will need to prove that he invented the invention prior to that disclosure (or in some instances,
prior to the date of invention by the other party).
US patent law does not restrict what subject matter may be patentable; rather, any new and useful process, machine, manufacture,
or composition of matter, or any new and useful improvement thereof, is deemed patentable. Notably, methods for treating the
human or animal body by surgery or therapy and diagnostic methods are patentable in the US. However, it is not possible to
sue a medical practitioner with respect to various medical activities for infringement of a US patent granted on a patent
application filed after 29 September 1996.
Recently, US courts have introduced a technical element requirement for patentability — particularly in the field of business
methods and computer programmes. Here, a new test for whether or not a process or method is potentially patentable requires
it to be either tied to a particular machine or apparatus, or operate to change articles or materials to a different state
or thing. However, there remains uncertainty regarding the scope and implementation of this test.
Instead of assessing whether an invention has an inventive step, the USPTO determines whether it would have been obvious to
the notional person of ordinary skill, aware of prior disclosures, to derive the invention. The USPTO may combine the features
of several different disclosures to make this determination.
The USPTO usually allows multiple independent claims within a patent application (as long as the claims are not unduly repetitive),
but tends to be relatively restrictive on what is considered a 'single' invention. It may, for example, be necessary to pursue
claims to a new drug and pharmaceutical use of the drug in separate US applications (for example, a 'divisional' or 'continuation'
application split from a 'parent' application).
The USPTO generally grants claims of narrower scope than the EPO, but this practice should be viewed in the context of the
doctrine of equivalents, which applies during US infringement proceedings postgranting. Under the doctrine of equivalents,
an infringement may be found by a US court if an alleged infringing product (or use, for example) has features that are deemed
to be equivalent — although not necessarily identical — to product features set out in a granted claim. Determining equivalence
can be complex.
Another noteworthy feature of the USPTO system is that patent applications are required to describe the best way of performing
the invention devised by the inventor(s). Also, there is a strict requirement that the applicant, inventor(s) and others associated
with a patent application are candid and honest in their dealings with the USPTO — a socalled 'duty of candour'. This includes
revealing any information, including any prior publications, that may be relevant to the validity of the patent application.
Failure to comply with the duty of candour can invalidate a resultant patent.
Finally, the USPTO will grant an extension to a patent term (normally 20 years from the date of filing the patent application)
where there has been a delay by the USPTO in processing the application. Patent term extensions may prolong the life of the
patent by up to several years.
Japan Patent Office
Following changes to Japanese patent law in recent years, the JPO operates in a similar way to the EPO in several aspects,
including a firsttofile system, a requirement for absolute novelty requirement and what constitutes patentable subject matter.
The JPO also makes an assessment of whether an invention has an inventive step, but does not use the EPO's problemandsolution
approach. In practice, convincing the JPO of an inventive step in some technical fields may be more difficult than either
the EPO or the USPTO, confirming the generally-held belief that assessing inventive step is somewhat subjective.
The JPO does not limit the number of independent claims in a patent application, provided that the claims cover the same invention,
although fees tend to make a large number of claims uneconomical. The JPO's approach to the concept of unity of invention
is more closely aligned to that of the USPTO than the EPO, so multiple divisional patent applications may be needed to cover
all technological aspects of an invention.
In certain technology areas, such as pharmaceuticals, the JPO has a higher enablement or support requirements than either
the EPO or the USPTO. Suitable worked examples of an invention must be present in the patent application to obtain a reasonable
claim scope; later providing postfiling examples as evidence of what is achievable using the invention may not be acceptable.
The scope of claims granted by the JPO generally tends to be intermediate between equivalents in the EPO and USPTO. For determination
of infringement, a doctrine of equivalents can be applied by Japanese courts.
Is a single application realistic?
Can a single patent application, such as an international patent application, be used successfully as a basis for obtaining
a valid patent in different territories? Yes, if the differences between patent offices are considered when drafting the original
patent specification. With the help of a competent patent attorney, an adequate and full description can be prepared, including
the best way of performing the invention and as many further examples as possible. Narrow, intermediate and broad definitions
of the invention should be considered and explicitly set out in the application so that these statements can form the basis
for suitable claims as required. Nevertheless, the final content and scope of resultant patents in different territories is
likely to be different. Although some harmonization of global patent laws has already taken place, there is more to be done
before a global patent is a possibility.
Michael Austin Roberts is a European Patent Attorney and UK Chartered Patent Attorney at Reddie & Grose (UK).Tel. +44 1223 360 350 Fax +44 1223 360