PCT stands for Patent Cooperation Treaty. A PCT patent application is an international patent application used to secure your right to file national patent applications in countries that are parties to the treaty. Presently, with few exceptions, nearly all industrialized nations are signatories to the PCT.
At its most basic, PCT application functions as a placeholder in time to secure the priority date for your invention, which allows you to postpone the expense of filing individual national patent applications in each of the countries for which you want to pursue protection. By filing a PCT patent application you incur a single initial filing fee (currently approximately three thousand dollars), but postpone all of the additional expenses of the national patent process for approximately 30 months from the application's priority date.
For example, a US inventor may file a US patent application on July 15, 2009. This secures the application's priority date as July 15, 2009. The deadline for filing a PCT patent application is one year from the priority date, or July 15, 2010. The national phase patent applications (those directed to protection in individual countries) would then be due approximately 30 months from the priority date, or January 15, 2012. Taking advantage of these deadlines, the patentee can postpone the PCT filing expense (several thousand dollars) for a year and postpone what are often the most significant expenses in the process, multiple national phase applications (each of which can be several thousand dollars), for two and a half years from the initial filing date. This gives the patentee time to assess the value of the invention and analyze the potential markets throughout the world before making more significant investments in international patent protection.
Multinational corporations rarely have difficulty in determining whether or not to file a PCT application. If the product(s) covered by the patent will be sold and used in international markets, then international protection will likely be pursued. Conversely, local businesses that do not have an international presence don't have international market share to protect and will likely not pursue protection. The difficult decisions often fall on the start-up, the entrepreneur and the expanding businesses. For them, international protection may be of little value today, but it may be exceptionally valuable down the road. For example, an entrepreneur looking to license or sell his invention may limit his market of buyers if the invention cannot be protected outside of the US. Similarly, the start-up or the expanding business may lose out on an opportunity to capitalize on their innovation in new markets if they do not secure their rights.
There are times in which filing a PCT application may add an unwanted layer of expense and delay in your overall patent strategy, but for many situations filing a PCT application is a great opportunity to secure your rights internationally while postponing significant monetary investment. Whether it makes sense for your business is something you should discuss with your patent attorney.