CIVIL ENGINEERING & PATENT LAW  
This website illustrates how Civil Engineers may make greater use of the Global Patent System to Promote Progress in their Field.
The American Founders included Patent Rights in the United States Constitution to Promote Progress.
Global Patenting
Global Patenting
     Civil engineering technology enterprises may resort to the global patent system to protect innovations on a nation-by-nation basis.  In selecting nations for patent filing, the patenting enterprise may look to national economic and infrastructure qualities and patent system strengths, in addition to its own business strategies.  Based on these factors, the top candidate nations for filing civil engineering technology applications include the U.S., Japan, Germany, China, the U.K., France, South Korea, Canada, and Australia.  Other nations may also qualify as good candidates depending on a given invention and the enterprise's business strategy for that invention.  Global patenting may yield a significant and valuable patent portfolio protecting the enterprise's key innovations. 
The Global Patent System

     In today's competitive marketplace, civil engineering technology enterprises should seek legal protection of their key innovations through patenting.  Patenting in the United States, though, marks only the beginning of legal protection for the civil engineering technology enterprise.  The enterprise should consider protection abroad when it seeks to patent its inventions.

     Because civil engineering technology inventions almost always involve tangible materials, civil engineering patent applications generally breeze through patent eligibility requirements based on subject matter, whether in the United States or abroad.  In contrast, patent eligibility rules often trip up more abstract disciplines like computer engineering and biopharmaceuticals.  So, civil engineering technology runs into little trouble asserting its patent eligibility as a process, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter, which comprise the patentable subject matter mandated by United States law and similarly mandated by other nations across the globe.  The real battles with patent offices around the world, though, occur over novelty and obviousness.  To just briefly touch on novelty and obviousness, inventors must rely on the strength of their proposed invention to persuade patent offices that their innovations overcome these guardians of patentability, and their analogues across the world.

     No world patent exists.  WIPO (the World Intellectual Property Organization), operating under the flag of the United Nations, helps patent applicants cross international borders by administering the Patent Cooperation Treaty.  Ultimately, though, inventors must obtain and enforce a separate national patent in each desired nation for each desired invention.  In addition to WIPO and the Patent Cooperation Treaty, regional patent offices like the European Patent Office and patenting agreements between various nations further lessen the costs and complexity of acquiring patents internationally.  American inventors often file first with the United States Patent and Trademark Office, and then pursue patents abroad using the Patent Cooperation Treaty and direct filing in other nations, claiming priority for invention back to their first filing date with the patent office in America.  The clock for a somewhat complex array of deadlines for priority starts ticking after the first patent filing for a given invention.  Although these involved priority rules defy broad generalizations, applicants usually only get up to a year from their first filing to file internationally.  Despite immense streamlining from the Patent Cooperation Treaty, international filing remains costly.  Particularly, translation costs, filing fees, and legal costs associated with coordinating parallel patent applications simultaneously in numerous nations drive global patenting costs up.  Because of these substantial costs, enterprise decision-makers tend to instinctively reserve broad global patent filing for their most promising technologies.

Deciding Where in the World to Patent

     But where in the world should a civil engineering technology enterprise patent?  Naturally, business strategy should dictate patent strategy.  But in attempting to divine patent strategy from business strategy, the big picture for civil engineering technology patenting worldwide at least provides a good starting point for deciding where to patent innovations.  Because deciding where to patent civil engineering technologies ultimately comes down to deciding which national patents to acquire, enterprises can look to each prospective nation's economic growth, infrastructure qualities, and patent system strength.  Looking about twenty years into the future probably makes sense because the U.S. patent term nominally extends for twenty years from filing, and many other nations have comparable patent protection windows.  So, projecting the state of a given nation's economy, infrastructure, and patent system over the next twenty years likely provides a good method to evaluate and compare the value of patenting civil engineering technologies in different parts of the world.

     Some major economic and infrastructure considerations driving patent planning include urban population growth, present and projected national gross domestic product, and the pace of technological advancement of a nation's infrastructure.  As far as patent system strength goes, helpful indicators include the number of patent applications that a nation receives, the number of granted patents that a nation maintains in force, the strength of a nation's court system for providing relief to patent owners against patent infringement, and corruption and piracy concerns.  These indicators of patent system strength should help point to whether or not the value of a given nation's granted patent will exceed (or even come close to) the cost of obtaining and maintaining that patent right.    

"Must Have" Nations for Patenting Civil Engineering Technology (U.S., Japan, Germany, and China)

     For any potentially valuable civil engineering invention, the three nations that make safe bets for patent filing include the United States (U.S.), Japan, and Germany.  These three nations, looking forward over the next couple of decades, possess all of the attributes promising good civil engineering technology patent rights.  The U.S., Japan (despite the 2011 tragedies), and Germany each have vast and advanced infrastructures, large and relatively wealthy urban populations, and huge gross domestic products.  These three nations also operate robust patent systems, having an enormous amount of granted patents in force and judiciaries that reliably interpret highly developed bodies of patenting jurisprudence.  It's tough to go wrong in deciding to file patent applications on good civil engineering technology inventions with the Americans, Japanese, or Germans.

     China falls short of qualifying as a safe bet on numerous grounds, but still likely constitutes a "must have" nation for patenting.  Explosive--perhaps too explosive--growth marks China's infrastructure, economy, and urban population.  Although commentators vary widely on their views of the Chinese patent system, characterizing Chinese patent protection for foreigners as anything better than shaky would amount to an overly optimistic assessment.  But the expansive Chinese market possesses such great potential that civil engineering technology enterprises simply must file there, despite uncertainty and unevenness in China's treatment of foreign patent holders as compared to Chinese patentees.

Solid, But Not Quite "Must Have" Nations (U.K., France, South Korea, Canada, and Australia)   

     As a given invention's estimated value grows, civil engineering technology enterprises may consider expanding the number of patent filings associated with that invention from covering the four "must have" nations to including five additional and slightly smaller economies.  These five additional prospective nations, including the United Kingdom (U.K.), France, South Korea, Canada, and Australia, have attributes similar to the U.S., Germany, and Japan, but on a smaller scale.  Accordingly, these five additional nations may not offer quite as broad economic coverage, per patent filing, as the "must have" group.  In expanding coverage to include some or all of the U.K., France, South Korea, Canada, and Australia, patent enterprises can use the European Patent Convention (EPC) to streamline costs among selected European countries (i.e., Germany, the U.K., and France).  By using the EPC, patent applicants can at least defer some patent filing costs for some time, while leaving the option of patenting open in European markets.  For relatively important inventions, expanding the global patent filing net to include the relatively strong markets and patent systems of the U.K., France, South Korea, Canada, and Australia is probably desirable. 

     At this point, spreading the patenting net even wider entails filing in either riskier markets or even smaller nations having solid patent systems.

Fairly Solid, But More Risk (Spain and Italy)

     Although Spain and Italy weigh in as similarly sized nations relative to the U.K. and France, fallout from the 2008 recession exposed significant weaknesses already suspected in the Spanish and Italian economies.  So, Spain and Italy rest on shakier financial footing than their northern European counterparts.  Spain and Italy, though, still have significant gross domestic products, large urban populations, relatively advanced infrastructures, and overall effective patent systems.  Also, applicants can resort to the European Patent Convention to streamline filing and defer filing costs in these two additional European countries.  Accordingly, for potentially valuable inventions, applicants should consider obtaining patent rights in these two relatively large and wealthy European nations.

Large but Riskier Markets (Brazil, India, Russia, and Mexico)

     Brazil, India, Russia, and Mexico present much uncertainty for patenting to the civil engineering technology enterprise.  Brazil may be the brightest spot of this group for patenting potential in the coming decades.  Brazil seems to have much promise for infrastructure growth, in addition to the nation's vast energy resources.  Brazil has a large urban population heading toward 200 million people, and a significant gross domestic product.  But the Brazilian patent system appears to have a low number of total patents in force for such a large nation, and its patent system overall is struggling with growing pains. 

     Patent value in India, Russia, and Mexico takes a serious hit due to transparency problems and corruption concerns.  With well over a billion people and an advancing economy, India rests upon enormous economic potential.  Russia and Mexico, both with over one hundred million people and large economies also possess significant potential.  Their current patent numbers, though, tell a generally lackluster story about patent strength. 

     Ultimately, civil engineering technology enterprises probably should always patent their crown jewel inventions in these four riskier markets.  Brazil probably gives the best odds of a good return on patent investment of this group.  For less important inventions, particularly in India, Russia, and Mexico, these nation's shaky patent systems reduce the chances of obtaining robust intellectual property rights to justify patent prosecution and maintenance costs.  Although Brazil, and probably to a lesser extent India, Russia, and Mexico, may leap into the upper echelons of global patenting in the coming years, they will more likely remain large but riskier markets for patenting civil engineering technology for the next decade or two.

Solid, But Smaller

     Many good, smaller patent systems remain for potential patent filing, but applicants must pay patent prosecution costs for each smaller country selected for patent acquisition.  Whereas a single German patent gets an applicant a first world economy of about 80 million people, it can easily take 10 or 15 separate smaller national patents to cover a comparably sized aggregate market.  So, patenting costs per gained amount of market coverage tend to skyrocket when applicants start filing in smaller nations.  Depending on the business goals for the civil engineering technology invention, though, filing in some or perhaps all of these smaller nations may more than justify the costs.

     Europe contains most of these smaller nations with steady economies, advanced infrastructures, and reliable patent systems, including:  the Netherlands (pop. ~17 million), Sweden (pop. ~9 million), Switzerland (pop. ~8 million), Austria (pop. ~8 million), Norway (pop. ~5 million), Finland (pop. ~5 million), and Ireland (pop. ~5 million).  Outside of Europe, some other worthy candidates include Israel (pop. ~8 million), Hong Kong (pop. ~7 million), Singapore (pop. ~5 million), and New Zealand (pop. ~4 million).  Also, civil engineering technology enterprises may always find additional smaller national candidates, depending on business goals.

     For their size, these nations possess advanced infrastructures, significant urban populations, and large gross domestic products.  These smaller countries also claim developed patent systems and overall effective enforcement of patent rights.  The small size of these countries, though, furnishes the primary obstacle to would-be patentees.  The 11 advanced nations highlighted above total a population of about 80 million people living under patent systems well-equipped to promote civil engineering technology inventions.  Still, it takes 11 separately prosecuted and coordinated patent applications to cover similar ground as a single German patent.  Having to fund numerous different patent acquisition efforts to obtain an array of separate national patents drives patenting costs well above the cost of obtaining a single patent in a larger nation like Germany.  But, depending on the invention and an enterprise's business goals, patenting in small nations sometimes pays large dividends, despite the increased costs of navigating numerous sovereign patent systems in parallel.
Midsize Candidates for Key Innovations and Important Business Goals (Poland, Greece, Argentina, South Africa, Taiwan, Chile, Malaysia, Thailand, Colombia, Ukraine, the Philippines, and Vietnam)

     Patenting innovations in these midsize nations could start raising a few eyebrows in the civil engineering technology enterprise.  These countries probably pose as much or more risk as some of the larger, riskier nations above, while likely offering less return on patenting investment due to their developing economies and patent systems.  These nations arguably possess less advanced infrastructures than the above-listed nations.  Further, these nations' patent laws, to varying extents, have not yet fully made it out of patent dry-dock, having promising but not fully developed patent systems.  Also, most of these nations have more serious transparency, corruption, and economic problems than the higher-ranked countries.

     Nations in this grouping may offer fertile ground for civil engineering technology patent applications covering critical innovations and promoting important business goals.  Of this grouping, Poland and Chile appear particularly poised to advance their patent systems, economies, and infrastructures in the near future.  But before committing resources to patenting inventions among this group, the civil engineering technology enterprise should scrutinize the economic, infrastructure, and patent system qualities of these nations in light of proposed business strategies.   

Small or Developing Patent Systems for Special Situations

     Although somewhat far flung from the typical choices for patent filing, business goals may drive civil engineering technology enterprises to consider pursuing a patent in one or more of this group of small and/or developing nations.  Though extremely small nations, Monaco and Luxembourg operate robust patent systems and advanced infrastructures that may offer valuable patent rights for civil engineering technology inventions, if business goals require such rights.  The Czech Republic, likely a fast-tracking nation for patent potential, possesses a significant patent system and a relatively advanced infrastructure if business goals require patent protection of a civil engineering technology innovation with the Czechs. 

     Numerous additional nations have either miniscule or developing patent systems that civil engineering technology enterprises may use to pursue patent rights, if business goals require protection of an invention in these small markets.  Denmark, Portugal, and Malta have small but relatively developed infrastructures and patent systems.  Large developing patent nations include Turkey and Egypt, followed by Peru, Uzbekistan, and Romania.  Hungary, Belarus, Bulgaria, Slovakia, Serbia, Croatia, Georgia, and Moldova, along with tiny Slovenia and Estonia, number among the small developing patent nations of Eastern Europe.  Though a tiny nation, Latvia is a standout possessing a developing but relatively large patent system. 

     Because they cover small markets, or root themselves in developing bodies of intellectual property law, these national patents would likely only create significant business value in select situations.  

Significant Omitted Nations   

     The above groupings of nations leave out some significant nations of the world:  populous Indonesia, Bangladesh, and Nigeria; highly urbanized Venezuela; the military powers of Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, and Kazakhstan; and the rogue nations of Iran and Syria.  These nations lack strong intellectual property traditions, and accordingly do not offer patent rights worth obtaining in most situations.  The most likely subset of this group to improve in the coming years probably includes Indonesia and Venezuela.    

Building the Global Patent Portfolio
 

     Filing patent applications globally on just one good civil engineering invention, in nations having the economic productivity, infrastructure, and patent systems appropriate for the nature of that invention and its associated business strategies, may yield a valuable patent portfolio.  As patents issue from applications in more and more nations, and the patenting enterprise files additional national patent applications to fully claim all patentable features of a single invention, substantial intellectual property may emerge on the enterprise's balance sheet.  If the patentee filed in nations granting valuable patent rights aligned with the enterprise's business goals, then the value of the patent portfolio may significantly exceed the costs associated with procuring and maintaining the patents in force in those nations.  Adding more inventions will naturally increase the size of the enterprise's global patent portfolio. 

     To translate the value of its patent portfolio into currency, i.e., "monetizing" the patent portfolio (to use the favored patent buzzword), the civil engineering technology enterprise can combine using the patented technology itself to lead the market, excluding some or all other enterprises from using its patented technology, licensing or assigning its patents to other parties, and enforcing its patents in national courts for injunctions or damages.  Although significant costs usually accompany these activities, particularly with enforcing patent rights around the world, asserting the enterprise's patent portfolio may make sense based on the invention, national forum, and business goals supported by the given patents.  Through these actions, the civil engineering technology enterprise may legally protect its cutting edge technology where desired around the world, possibly yield licensing revenue from across the global civil engineering industry, and perhaps turn a profit for the enterprise's coffers.  Also, taken together, the accumulated patented inventions of enterprises across the industry may technologically advance efforts in civil engineering design and construction worldwide.


DISCLAIMER: As with all content on this website, this article presents general information only and should not be regarded as legal advice.  Accordingly, the author disclaims liability for any omissions or errors.  Readers should contact their own lawyer regarding their own specific legal questions, and should not take actions relying on the information presented in this article.  This article does not establish an attorney-client relationship with the author or his firm.