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Key Estate Planning Considerations for Individuals with Intellectual Property (Part III: Patents)
This is the third and final entry in a three-part blog series about the interaction between estates law and intellectual property law. Part I introduced Ontario’s succession law regime, and provided an analysis of succession law vis-à-vis copyright law. Part II applied this analysis to trademark law. Finally, Part III will examine this area in relation to patent law, as well as provide some concluding thoughts and considerations.
In the previous two blog entries in this series, we have provided an overview of succession law in Ontario, and have applied its principles to the relevant provisions of copyright law and trademark law. This week, we conclude by taking this same approach to patent law; as you will see, patent legislation is in some ways more flexible and in other ways more restrictive than copyright or trademark legislation
A patent provides a time-limited, legally protected, exclusive right to prevent others from making, using and selling an invention. An invention can be a product, a composition (such as a chemical composition), a machine, a process, or an improvement upon any of these (with certain exceptions).
Unlike copyrights and trademarks, patents must be registered in order for their owners to exercise the rights associated with them. According to Subsection 27(1) of the Patent Act, only an inventor or their “legal representative” (which has a similar definition to that of the same term in the Copyright Act) may apply for a patent; thus, it may be possible for a testator’s executor to apply for a patent even after that testator’s death.
On that note, similar to copyrights, it is possible for an inventor’s employer to own a patent; however, the Patent Act does not have any provisions that explicitly state this. Instead, the common law establishes that there is a presumption that an employee will have ownership of their invention, and any resulting patent for discoveries made during the course of employment (See Comstock Canada v Electec Ltd (1991),  FCJ No 987, 29 ACWS (3d) 257). In order to rebut this presumption, there must be an express agreement to the contrary, or the employee must have been hired for the express purpose of inventing or innovating. Therefore, in drafting their will with respect to patent rights, an individual should confirm with their contemplated executor that an employer does not have any potential claims to their patent rights.
Furthermore, with respect to assignments of patents via a will, Subsection 49(1) of the Patent Act allows for the transfer of a patent and/or the right to obtain a patent, in whole or in part. Thus, it would be prudent for an individual who does not apply for a patent for whatever reason while they are alive to inform their contemplated executors of their potential right to obtain said patent and should assign said right in their will. Furthermore, under Section 44 of the Patent Act, in a manner slightly different from copyrights and trademarks, the term of a patent is 20 years from the date that an application for said patent is filed. Thus, while a registered patent expires, the right to obtain a patent does not (subject to satisfying additional requirements for obtaining a patent, such as novelty, obviousness, utility and subject matter), and neither term correlates with the death of the inventor.
All of this suggests that if a testator created a new invention during the course of their life without patenting it, the beneficiaries who received the patent rights under the will (or the residuary beneficiaries if there was no specific patent-related provision in the will) could very well make a successful application for a patent and benefit from the rights of the patent over a 20-year period. The financial value of a patent could be significant, so individuals should definitely account for the potential value of the patent in determining how to distribute their estate. That being said, from a practical perspective it would be prudent for an inventor to apply for a patent while they are alive, as they would most likely be more familiar with key details necessary to complete the application than their beneficiaries would be.
Concluding Thoughts and Considerations
In making provisions for one’s intellectual property rights in their will, it is important to consider provisions related to both assignability and terms with respect to said intellectual property rights. For the former, the key federal statutes grant the ability for one to assign these rights through their will. For the latter, knowing when these rights expire is critical for determining how to manage them in an estate planning (as well as an overall financial planning) context, particularly because they may require continued attention and maintenance from an executor. In any event, it is clear that intellectual property is very much property for the purposes of will-making, and thus one should give any intellectual property that they may own just as much attention as any of their other key assets. Thus, it is essential for one to, prior to their death, keep their executors and trustees (and in many cases, their beneficiaries) in the loop about what intellectual property rights they do or may have.