Your patent is the first line of defense for your invention. So once your patent is approved, your invention is completely secure, right?
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Maybe not. Even if you have a valid U.S. patent, your invention may be vulnerable to infringement and duplication overseas - unless you know how to put international patent law to work for your business.
Unfortunately, many inventors don't realize that a U.S. patent only provides protection in U.S. territories and offers no patent protection in other countries. To protect an invention abroad, the inventor must apply for a patent in each country or regional patent office.
Foreign Patent Regulations
Patent laws and regulations are different for every country. However generally speaking, most foreign countries will not grant a patent for an invention that has been publicized (or published) prior to the date of application.
Many foreign countries also require maintenance fees for patents and mandate that the invention be manufactured in the country for a specific time period following patent approval (typically three years)
The Paris Convention for the Protection of Industrial Property
Fortunately, there are a number of international treaties that make the job of international patenting a little easier. Many countries (including the U.S.) participate in the Paris Convention for the Protection of Industrial Property, an international agreement that provides non-citizens the same patent rights and as inventors who are citizens of the host country. Another nice feature of this agreement is that it grants the right of patent priority rights. If you file a patent application in one country and then file patents in other participating countries later, your subsequent filings are given the same priority status as your initial application. In other words, as long as you file your applications in a timely manner, this agreement protects your invention from being patented internationally by someone else.
The Patent Cooperation Treaty
To make international patents even easier, the Patent Cooperation Treaty standardized the application process across international boundaries. In participating countries, inventors can now enjoy the benefits of a centralized filing system a uniform application - an especially helpful feature if you plan on filing patents in several geographic locales. Even so, the uniform application process still requires the applicant to follow due process, including a patent search and filing deadlines for the country or countries in which the patent is being pursued.
If you plan on filing an application for a foreign patent before you file one in the U.S. you will need to obtain a license from the director of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. Even if you file a U.S. patent first, special circumstances may still necessitate licensing, so it's always a good idea to check with the USPTO before filing abroad.
International patent law is complicated, requiring a certain level of expertise and experience. Whatever you do, don't try to navigate the process on your own. Consult an attorney who specializes in international patenting for counsel and advice.