Innovation Patents: what to do?

ACIP has released an options paper on what to do about the innovation patent system.

An innovation patent is a uniquely Australian contribution towards encouraging innovation. You can get one (if you apply for it) for pretty much anything[1] unless it differs from the prior art only in ways that “make no substantial contribution to the working of the [ahem] invention” as explained by the Full Court in the Delnorth case.

As recounted in the options paper, the basic objective of the innovation patent system is to encourage and promote investment in innovation by Australian (especially) SMEs.

The options paper is full of interesting statistics and there is an accompanying economics paper, the Verve report attempting to get some empirical data. For example, only about 25% of innovation patents ever get certified. Also, more than 50% of innovation patents are allowed to lapse by the end of their third year. The proportion of innovation patents granted to foreigners is 35% and rising.

Insofar as the options paper takes a position, it would seem that there is pretty much universal agreement that the level of innovation required to get an innovation patent is too low.

The options paper also appears to discern evidence that innovation patents are being used “strategically” or “tactically”, at least by some applicants.

ACIP is now seeking your views on what to do.

ACIP itself identifies 3 broad options:

(1) do nothing (option A);

(2) abolish the innovation patent system (option B); or

(3) change the innovation patent system (option C).

Option A: do nothing

ACIP notes that it is too soon to tell how the Raising the Bar reforms will affect those seeking innovation patents. Those changes do nothing, of course, to the level of “innovative step”.

The Verve report received 517 responses to its survey of the 3,195 Australian inventors who have taken out innovation patents to protect their “inventions”. Bearing in mind that these are the people that the innovation patent system is supposed to be encouraging, ACIP notes:

The Verve survey has shown that individuals and SME user-groups appear to be generally satisfied with the innovation patent system—albeit this survey occurring prior to the full impacts of the Raising the Bar Act being felt by users of the system.

The biggest problem with this do nothing option, however, is that it doesn’t do anything to address the apparently widely recognised issue that the innovation threshold is too low.

As ACIP notes, letting people get an innovation patent in Australia for something which is not patentable anywhere else does nothing to encourage Australian businesses to compete overseas. It should also be borne in mind that an innovation patent over something will probably have the effect of meaning its price will be higher than it would otherwise have been.

Option B: abolish the innovation patent system

There is a nice catalogue of what one might think were compelling reasons why this is a good option. There is also a summary of arguments against it.

This (or a variation on it) is widely perceived to be the option proposed late last year by IP Australia. The options paper indicates that the majority of non-confidential submissions to IP Australia and to ACIP didn’t support IP Australia’s proposal.

The options paper also includes a curious page suggesting that the designs registration system could be amended to permit the registration of functional designs. I (perhaps mistakenly) had thought the Franki Committee’s recommendations were implemented by the Designs Amendment Act 1981 s 11 (inserting new s 18) and s 5 (inserting a new definition of ‘design’) and find their current embodiment in s 7(2) of the Designs Act 2003. The “problem”, if it be a problem, with designs registration is that it protects only the visual appearance of a product, not its function. The new Act doesn’t seem to be any different in that respect to the old Act and it was plainly a deliberate policy choice.[2]

Option C: change the innovation patent system

The problem here, at least insofar as the level of innovation is concerned, is what should that new level be and how on earth would the Courts ever work it out. ACIP plainly didn’t like the suggestions of the Law Council, IPTA or FICPI on this front.

The options paper also raises for further consideration changing or limiting the remedies: no injunction or no interlocutory injunctions, but continued exposure to pay damages or account for profits; limiting the ability to recover pecuniary remedies to the period after certification. Oh dear!

ACIP would like to hear your views by 4 October 2013. It is also planning to hold workshops for public consultation during September.

Options Paper here (pdf)

Verve report here

  1. Patents Act 1990 s 18(2) and (3) exclude some things from patentable subject matter and, apart from the level of innovation prescribed in s 7(4), there are a few other largely technical requirements to satisfy too.  ?
  2. See e.g. recommendations 24, 25 and 26 of the ALRC’s Designs report. Of course, the limitation of the designs registration system to visual appearance only seemed to be one of the main complaints about the system identified by the ALRC: see e.g. 2.44 of the ALRC’s report and 3.49 and 6.5.  ?