U.S., Japan sign accord on patents

August 17, 1994|By New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON -- The United States and Japan signed an agreement yesterday that would make major changes in the patent policies in both countries.

The accord is the first to be reached in this contentious area in more than a year of negotiations.

"From our point of view, it's quite historic," said Assistant Secretary of Commerce Bruce A. Lehman, the commissioner of patents and trademarks. "We're getting provisions we've been seeking a long time. This will have a big market-opening effect."

Although the accord is not likely to bring about the resolution of disputes involving insurance, automobiles and government procurement, which are considered more crucial issues in the broader negotiations between Washington and Tokyo -- the so-called framework talks, which have been broken off for the present -- it is expected to have repercussions for industry in both countries.

"Patent policy relates to all fields," said Kiyohiko Nanao, the top-ranking economics specialist at the Japanese Embassy in Washington. "It covers everything, not just a single industry like telecommunications or shipping. In that sense, the agreement is important."

In letters of agreement, which were signed in Washington yesterday by Secretary of Commerce Ronald H. Brown and Ambassador Takakazu Kuriyama, Japan agreed to reduce the time for determination on patent requests, allowing applications to be decided in a maximum of three years. Currently, the average review time is five years.

Japan also said it would do away with a provision that allows patents to be legally challenged before they have been issued, as well as a requirement for compulsory licensing of patents in some instances.

The accord includes another important change that had been announced in an agreement made public in January, and reiterated yesterday: Tokyo will allow foreign inventors to file their initial applications in English. Currently, such applications must be filed in Japanese, and inaccuracies in translation have forced many American companies to defend their patents in court.

The areas covered by the accord had been cited in a report by the General Accounting Office last year as impediments to the granting of patents with "timely exclusivity" to American inventors.

For its part, the United States agreed yesterday to substantial policy changes long sought by American corporations but that have been hotly challenged by independent inventors and universities.

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