India: Copyrighting Patents

Last Updated: 8 June 2018
Article by Yashvi Padhya

The nature of Intellectual Property Rights is such that, like any other law, it has loopholes as well as overlaps. These overlaps arise due to the fact that IPR protects ideas by their expressions and expression can be in more ways than what can be imagined by one person. There are subject matters which are eligible for the protection of more than one kind of IP. The prime example is the overlap between design and copyrights which has been statutorily dealt with under the Copyrights Act.

However, the recent debate has been with regard to Copyrights and Patents. Now, both of these are as far apart as two IP protection sects can be. Copyright protects literary, dramatic, artistic, cinematographic, musical works whereas Patent grants rights to functional inventions which are novel, useful and non-obvious. However, these rights find a commonality in the patent applications. It is pertinent to disclose the information relating to the working of the invention in the patent application by way of specifications. These specifications also include certain drawings and sketches of working models of the invention. There has been a long standing question whether these applications, which consist of the originally authored specifications and drawings, are eligible to be granted a copyright. Or alternately, can the specifications in the patent application be infringing upon copyrights owned by other authors/scholars.

Countries have taken different stands in the matter. Germany, for instance, excludes patent documents from the copyright protection from the time they are published.1 However it is necessary for a person to cite the source when using it in a scholarly or academic work. Switzerland as well exclusively exempts the patent documents from being copyrighted.2 On the other hand the position in UK differs depending on when the patent was filed. All the applications filed prior to 1989 were protected by the Crown Copyright. However, after they enforced their 1988 Copyright Act all the applications prior to 1989 remained with the government unless they had a copyright notice on them, and the copyright for all the applications filed after that date lies with the applicant and no use can be made unless with express license except for the purpose of 'dissemination of information'.3 USA holds a different position for copyrighting patent applications. It has been stated that all the information posted on the website of the USPTO is considered to be in the public domain but the government holds international copyright over it. However, the applicants are allowed to specify their copyright on the patent drawings or other materials.4

There have been very few cases which discuss the copyright ability of patent applications. The US case that accepted that copyright subsists in a patent application was In Re Yardley.5 In more recent cases, it has been questioned whether patent applications can be challenged in court as infringing a copyright. In American Institute of Physics and John Wiley & Sons, Inc. v. Schwegman, Lundberg & Woessner P.A. 6, the University alleged that the firm infringed their copyright by attaching a scholarly article in their patent application. The firm on the other hand took the defense of 'Fair Use' and stated that the articles were taken from the USPTO website itself. In two other cases, American Institute of Physics and Blackwell Publishing, Ltd. v. Winstead PC7 and John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. and American Institute of Physics v. McDonnell Boehnen Hulbert & Berghoff LLP 8—and again, after intervention by the PTO—the plaintiffs similarly amended their complaints to disclaim any allegation of infringement based on submission of copies of copyrighted articles to the PTO, or on retention of file copies of the works submitted to the PTO.9 The defendants in all these cases stated that disclosure of prior art was necessary in order to secure a patent for their invention and thereby should be included under the exclusion of 'Fair Use'. The court accepted this and said that as long as it proves to be of evidentiary value and is a requisite for disclosure for the government the use can be deemed to be fair.

Contrarily, the UK courts do not follow the same rationale. In Catnic Components Ltd. & Anr. v. Hill and Smith Ltd. the court held that the copyright in a patent ceases to exist once it is published. The court was of the opinion that the main underlying principle behind granting a patent is full disclosure. The idea is to bring the invention into public domain so as to boost innovation. Copyright on the other hand restricts the rights of other people by giving exclusive rights to the owner of the copyright. It is a conflict between the most basic objectives of the two rights. Furthermore, scholars have pointed out that granting copyright could in effect hamper the innovations further. The term of a patent is a maximum of twenty years but in case of copyrights the term is much longer and continues to be in effect 60 or 70 years after the death of the owner, depending on the domestic laws of the country. This creates a problem as to the fact that even after the invention is out in the public domain there would still be rights which will be otherwise attached and thereby will beat the purpose of being in public domain. These questions have not yet arisen in front of the Indian courts and the law is also silent on it, nothing has been stated explicitly. But the position of other countries gives us a fair idea as to how allowing copyright in patent applications or not can lead to different scenarios and raise different questions.

Footnotes

[1] https://www.dpma.de/english/patents/faq/index.html#a22

[2] https://www.admin.ch/opc/en/classified-compilation/19920251/index.html#a5

[3] http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20140603113132/http://www.ipo.gov.uk/types/copy/c-other/c-other-faq/c-other-faq-type/c-other-faq-type-patspec.htm

[4] https://www.uspto.gov/terms-use-uspto-websites

[5] 493 F.2d 1389 (CCPA 1974)

[6] D. Minn. Civ. No. 12-528

[7] N.D. Tex. No. 3:12-CV-1230

[8] N.D. Ill. No. 12 C 1446

[9] http://www.mondaq.com/unitedstates/x/283736/Copyright/Can+a+Patent+Application+Violate+the+Copyright+Laws

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