New Zealand makes sweeping changes to patent law

Monday 26th January 2009

More than half a century after passing its Patents Act, New Zealand is to introduce a new patents Law. Mike Hawkins reviews the main changes the Bill will bring.

This year the New Zealand Patents Act was 55 years old.  In July 2008, however, a comprehensive Patents Bill was introduced into Parliament. The General Election held on 8 November 2008 will delay its enactment.

In summary•  Absolute novelty replaces local novelty •  “Whole contents” is introduced to deal with conflicting applications •  “Balance of probabilities” replaces “benefit of the doubt” in deciding whether a patent is to be granted •  “Manner of manufacture” is retained as the definition of patentable subject matter but specific exclusions are now included.  •  Examination is enlarged to include grounds of lack of inventive step and utility •  Automatic publication of patent specifications at 18 months from the earliest priority date •  A “right to apply” requirement is replaced by a “right to grant” •  Definition of infringement included but with experimental use exception. •  Pre-grant inter-partes opposition proceedings are replaced by a request for re-examination •  Public inspection is allowed of patent application files Fast-forward to sections »  Absolute novelty
»  Enlarged examination
»  Whole contents
»  Re-examination
»  Early publication
»  Patent grant
»  Revocation before the commissioner
»  Exclusions from patentability
»  Maori Advisory Committee
»  Balance of probabilities
»  Micro-organism deposit
»  Right to patent grant
»  Prior art searches disclosed
»  Term
»  Infringement
»  Regulation of the New Zealand patent attorney profession
»  Transitional provisions
»  Miscellaneous
»  A lost opportunity? 

Absolute novelty                                                                    Top
The inclusion of the “local novelty” requirement in the present Act has, in this Internet age, long been considered inappropriate.  What the Bill does is to define a “prior art base” which encompasses all information available to the public in any form anywhere in the world, and both novelty and inventive step will then be tested in respect to this “prior art base”. 

Enlarged examination                                                            Top
The current Act restricts examination essentially to issues of novelty.  The Bill now requires examination to cover novelty, inventive step and utility.  The meaning of “useful” is that the “invention has a specific, credible and substantial utility”.  The Explanatory Note to the Bill explains that this is intended to ensure that the inventor has identified “a real world use” for the invention, and that the introduction of this test is of particular relevance for inventions involving genetic material where patents have in the past been granted without a specific use being disclosed.  One issue arising out of the enlarged examination, which will need careful review by the Intellectual Property Office of New Zealand, is whether the existing patent examining structure is adequate, both in terms of numbers of staff and their resources, to deal with the higher level of examination which will be required. 
Whole contents                                                                       Top
The “prior art base” will include, in the assessment of novelty, the information contained in a complete specification filed in respect of another patent application of earlier priority date but which was published after the priority date of the claim under consideration.

Re-examination                                                                      Top
The Commissioner may, and must, if requested to do so by any person, re-examine the complete specification before or after the patent is granted.  A request for re-examination before grant will effectively replace the pre-grant inter-partes opposition procedure currently available.  The patent will not be granted while a request for re-examination remains undecided.  Many practitioners will regret the loss of the present opposition procedure, unless it is reinstated during the passage of the Bill. It has provided a relatively robust and low cost procedure by which applications can be submitted to close scrutiny and, in many cases, refused or at least substantially amended before patent grant.

Early publication                                                                   Top
Under the present Act complete specifications are published only at acceptance.  Under the Bill, for non-PCT Treaty applications, the Commissioner must publish a notice in the Journal that a complete specification is open to public inspection after a period of 18 months from the earliest priority date.  For Treaty applications, these are deemed to have become open to public inspection on their date of the publication under Article 21 of the Treaty. 

Patent grant                                                                          Top
The Commissioner is required to grant a patent as soon as reasonably practicable after three months from the date of the publication of the acceptance of the complete specification and in the absence of a current request for re-examination. 

Revocation before the Commissioner                                  Top
Under the present Act an application for revocation to the Commissioner must be made within 12 months of the sealing date.  The Bill extends this so revocation can be pursued at any time following the patent grant.  The existing High Court procedure for revocation will also remain.

Exclusions from patentability                                              Top
Although the definition of invention, namely a “manner of manufacture”, has been retained from the present Act, there are, in the Bill, specific exclusions:  (i) where the commercial exploitation would be contrary to public order or morality; (ii) human beings and biological processes for their generation; (iii) therapeutic methods of treatment of human beings by surgery or therapy; (iv) methods of diagnosis practised on human beings; or (v) plant varieties.  In the latter regard, this is to avoid conflict with the protection available under the Plant Variety Rights Act 1987.  The exclusion of the methods of human treatment is contrary to the availability of protection for such inventions in Australia. 
Maori Advisory Committee                                                   Top
The Commissioner is required to appoint a Maori Advisory Committee whose function is to advise the Commissioner, on request, whether a claimed invention is derived from Maori traditional knowledge or from indigenous plants or animals and, if so, whether the commercial exploitation of that invention is likely to be contrary to Maori values.  The Commissioner is required to consider, but is not bound by, the advice given by this Committee.

Balance of probabilities                                                       Top
Under the current Act a patent applicant is given the benefit of the doubt in the Commissioner’s decision on whether to grant a patent.  This will be replaced by the more stringent test of a “balance of probabilities”.  This will be consistent with that used in civil proceedings in the New Zealand courts.

Micro-organism deposit                                                       Top
Where an invention is a micro-organism, for sufficiency of the description the micro-organism is required to be deposited, with a prescribed depository institution, on or before the filing date of the specification.

Right to patent grant                                                            Top
A patent may be granted to a person who is the inventor or derives title to the invention from the inventor.  In contrast, any person may apply for a patent.  This change of emphasis from the present Act avoids the current problems where an imperfect title to the invention at the time of application will put the resultant patent at risk.

Prior art searches disclosed                                               Top
The applicant is required to inform the Commissioner of the results of any documentary searches by or on behalf of a foreign patent office, carried out for the purpose of assessing the patentability of an invention disclosed in the complete specification or of an equivalent application outside New Zealand.  The equivalent requirement in Australia has been recently withdrawn, so whether this provision will survive through to the final Act may be uncertain. 

Term                                                                                      Top
The term is 20 years with no extension of term provisions despite the exclusions relating to infringement (see below).

Infringement                                                                          Top


Infringement of a patent is defined as doing anything that the patentee has the exclusive right to do to exploit the invention and to authorise another person to exploit the invention.  Infringement also includes supplying the means to infringe to another person i.e. contributory infringement, but specifically excludes an act for experimental purposes if this does not unreasonably conflict with the normal exploitation of the invention or if an activity related to the development and submission of information required for the regulation of the manufacture, construction, use, importation, sale, hire or disposal of any product.
Regulation of the New Zealand patent attorney profession        Top

The Bill sets up the Patent Attorneys Standards Board whose tasks include the approval of a draft code of conduct for patent attorneys to be developed by the New Zealand Institute of Patent Attorneys, dealing with complaints and disciplinary matters, and the qualifications and experience held by candidates for registration as a patent attorney.

Transitional provisions                                                          Top
These include provisions that patent applications made under the existing Act, divisional applications, and also any Treaty applications of early enough date, will continue under that Act. 

Miscellaneous                                                                         Top
Various other provisions have been carried over from the current Act.  The retention of some of these are a surprise to many commentators, such as the availability of compulsory licenses and patents of addition, while others will be welcome inclusions, such as those relating to divisional applications and the ability to initially file a provisional specification.  Interestingly, the “groundless threats of infringement” provisions of the present Act have not survived. 

A lost opportunity?                                                                 Top



The long awaited introduction of the Bill is welcomed. It comprehensively attempts to bring New Zealand’s patent legislation up to date and to ensure, as far as possible, the granting of stronger patents and the refusal of patent applications below a higher threshold.  However, some areas, such as exclusions from patentability and the requirement for disclosure of prior art searches, have lost an opportunity to bring New Zealand usefully closer to the Australian legislation, unless this is remedied during the Select Committee hearings.
This article was first published in Patent World, November 2008. 

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