The Middle East and North Africa region, more commonly known as MENA, receives its share of news in the international circuit. At the forefront, the boom which began in Saudi Arabia a few years ago is still going strong, along with the introduction and implementation of many reforms, which are steadily fueling the diversification of the economy and attracting both national and foreign investment. Egypt’s economy also continues to grow and draw considerable attention from foreign investment given the constant development of several industries, including manufacturing, food processing, agriculture, hydrocarbons, and pharmaceuticals, and other service sectors that are driving the country’s diverse economic activity.
The MENA region continues to be the stage for political and economic developments that led to the growing of a middle class, with a penchant for innovative products and innovation itself. A combined, young population of half a billion growing at double digit rates, plays a significant role to making the region one of the fastest growing markets in the world with five-year compound annual growth rate outlooks of between 9 to 30 percent depending on the field or sector.
In that same period, and with the continued support of at least the WIPO, INPI, JPO, KIPO, and the USPTO, the countries of the region have established, implemented, or ratified their laws governing intellectual property.
A key development in an increasing number of countries of the region is the implementation of substantive examination leading to legally valid patents. This point has become one of utmost importance since the Patent Offices in most of the countries of the region have taken on the burden of rejecting or granting patents based on substantive examination, rather than placing the burden on the applicant meeting the patentability criteria of novelty, inventive step, applicability, unity, and compliance with local laws and regulations on allowed subject matter. The most recent office to join this group is the Kuwaiti Patent Office.
The Patent Offices of the following countries have been issuing decisions based on substantive examination: the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Bahrain, Qatar, Iraq, Egypt, Jordan, Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia. This is the list of most of the countries included in the MENA region, and only leaves out a handful of countries, such as: Lebanon, Libya, Yemen, and Kuwait. Less than five years ago, the number of countries was much smaller and excluded Oman, Bahrain, Qatar, Tunisia, and Algeria. Going back even longer, the number of countries with substantive examination was even smaller.
The quality and level of examination of course varies from country to country. The trend though has been for most countries to adopt the same strategy and refer to the International Search and Opinion (i.e. ISR and IRPR), at least for the First Examination Report (FER). For most applicants, this is a welcome implementation since it provides for the possibility to adopt a similar strategy in those countries as the one adopted in most countries where the IPEA’s opinion is applicable. Most of the examiners in the countries in the MENA region, with the proper compliance and arguments on file, will look favorably at foreign grants and acknowledge their peers’ decisions. This is not to say that a foreign grant will automatically result in a national grant. The examiners must be convinced that the objections raised are addressed. This then brings us to the challenges faced by the local agents representing multinational corporations and small and medium-sized enterprises, and even in some cases, local or regional companies.
A more recent development that has made a significant impact on the region and applicants is the suspension of new filings in the GCC Patent Office, the only regional patent office in the MENA. The GCC Patent Office was comprised of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE and which implemented a unitary system, stopped accepting new patent applications as of January 6, 2021. While this is a temporary situation, as an amended law has been published but awaits new regulations to start implementation, many applicants found themselves having to reassess their filing strategy and budget for the Arabian Gulf countries in the interim.
Pursuant to the laws of the countries in the region, foreign applicants must be represented by a locally registered practitioner with a local address. Historically, the capabilities and competencies of these local representatives were primarily limited to administrative duties, because of the absence of any need for technical expertise or know-how. With several Patent Offices issuing technical examination reports, and in most countries in the local language, Arabic, applicants tend to depend on the local representative to fully understand the technical and legal implications and provide a plan or strategy for preparing and filing the best response to address these reports in a methodical, adequate, and timely manner. In many instances, an interview with the examiner may be required. As the applicant’s local representative, the latter should be able to understand the applicant’s strategy and argue with the examiner as needed to address any remarks or comments made during an interview.
Such competencies are hard to find in the MENA region, especially considering the rapidity with which the Patent Offices started issuing examination reports to go through the backlog created from maintaining pending applications until the implementation of the examination guidelines set in motion. Such competencies also come at an elevated price. For some local or regional IP firms, this means loss of the ability to offer the same services with the usual competitive pricing. For others, this means expanding the patent teams to include foreign patent attorneys, which comes however with a limitation due to the language barrier.
With these changing parameters, foreign applicants are now faced with additional variables when considering their global patent strategy where this now includes the MENA region. Pricing will always be an important variable to consider when preparing budgets. However, the quality and competence of the team prosecuting the patent applications has become as important for at least two reasons: (1) identifying subject matter which may be patentable at various stages of the patent procurement, and (2) ensuring a streamlined prosecution with minimal office actions and the ability to proceed to grant when needed.
As the MENA region begins to attract the attention of a growing number of industries, the importance of securing legally valid IP rights and the ability of adequately enforcing those rights necessitate the identification of local representatives with both the capabilities and abilities to understand not only the legal aspects of these rights, but also their merits and validity to withstand cancellation and/or possible acts of infringement. This will also necessitate a review of the budgets relating to IP for the MENA region.
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