Foreign patents share many characteristics with U.S. patents. Foreign patents are issued by a national government or international organization, such as the World Intellectual Property Organization or the European Patent Office. We will discuss these international organizations in more detail later.

Foreign patents provide the patentee with the right to exclude within a country or geographic region. Usually, the right is restricted to a specific country. This rule applies even to patents that are issued by international organizations.

The patents are also issued for a finite term. The term may be as little as six years or as long as 20 years. There has been a trend to set a uniform term of 20 years as part of the harmonization movement. In fact, that is why the U.S. Patent term was changed in 1995 to harmonize U.S. patent law with other countries.

The right to exclude is defined by the claims. However, claim form and interpretation vary from country to country. For example, the United Kingdom allows omnibus claims, while the U.S. does not. Germany uses a central claiming system, where the claims are treated more like an example of the invention. The U.S. treats claims like they are the boundary of the invention.

Most countries and international organizations have:

1) Utility or industrial applicability requirements
2) Novelty requirements
3) Nonobviousness or inventive step requirements

Patentable subject matter may vary from country to country. Some countries have been slower to allow inventors to obtain patent protection for some cutting-edge subject matter, such as computer software, business methods and genetically engineered organisms. Most countries do not issue patents for surgical operations.

Another aspect of international patent protection is annuities. Annuities are similar to maintenance fees. Unlike maintenance fees, however, some annuities are due during the prosecution process.

Also, some countries recognize a separate class of invention known as a utility model. Utility models protect functional aspects of a design, such as a tool. Utility models are sometimes treated as a lesser form of intellectual property with a lesser standard for nonobviousness, lesser scope of protection and a shorter term.

One example of a country that issues utility models is Germany. The German utility model has a lower standard for nonobviousness and novel. German utility models are also processed quicker and have a lower cost.

Japan also has a utility-model system that complements its patent system.