Australia concentrates the patent system on climate change

According to IP Australia, the body incorporating the Australian Patent Office, the government has declared a policy to "help green innovators find a fast track to market". In offering expedited examination to environmentally friendly technologies, the Australian Patent Office is following the lead set by several of its international counterparts.

With abundant solar, wind and tidal resources, Australia has long been considered a highly desirable market in which to patent renewable energy technologies. Recently published figures suggest that across all technologies, Australia represents less than 1% of the global patent pool. However, in the area of renewable energy, Australia represents some 4% of the pool – well ahead of any individual European country with the exception of Germany, and well ahead of other countries such as Canada and India.

In wind power alone, the annual number of published Australian patents has increased over thirtyfold since 2000.

The new policy is likely to provide a disproportionate benefit to foreign companies seeking to patent in Australia. Over 90% of Australian patent applications are filed on behalf of foreign entities and the system of expedited examination will be available to all these patent filers. In fact, it seems likely that many companies will use Australia to gain an early indication on patentability. Despite the lower inventive step threshold which applies in Australia, the search ability of its patent examiners is well regarded.

Nonetheless, the ostensible reason for the change in government policy is to strengthen Australian innovation and commercialisation opportunities in the "clean-tech" sector.

The push to assist in patenting of environmental technologies is part of the government's wider policy approach to innovation, as detailed in its recently released Innovation Policy Agenda. This policy document details four national research priorities:

  • an environmentally sustainable Australia;
  • the promotion and maintenance of good health;
  • frontier technologies for building and transforming Australian industries; and
  • safeguarding Australia.

Within the policy, the need to "support innovative responses to climate change" is specifically listed as a government goal. In pursuit of this goal, the government has established several funding bodies and research collaborations:

  • Clean Business Australia;
  • the Green Car Innovation Fund;
  • the Clean Energy Initiative;
  • the Global Carbon Capture and Storage Institute; and
  • the Climate Change Action Fund.

Policy responses to climate change are currently the subject of much debate in Australia and are likely to remain so in the lead-up to and aftermath of the Copenhagen talks. The resultant politicisation of the issues is apparent in the flow of government investment into research and development. With a large coal-mining industry (coal is Australia’s single largest export product), there is a strong push for money to be spent on carbon capture and storage technologies. There is also an increasing push for investment into other renewable technologies, with a consortium of large engineering companies seeking to develop solar thermal technologies into commercial application.

The government’s decision to provide additional assistance to patent applications in these and related fields is geared towards making Australia a useful market in which to develop and commercialise clean technology further. It will be interesting to see the degree to which this policy adjustment affects the use of the Australian patent system for this purpose.


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