The Defence Trade Controls Amendment Act 2015 entered into Australian federal law on 16 May 2015.  In regulating the extent to which one is able to communicate new technologies overseas – and in providing criminal sanctions for non-compliance, the new legislation stands to impact significantly upon the day-to-day activities of Australian patent attorneys – and their clients.

Shelston IP has worked closely with the Defence Export Controls Office (DECO) throughout the public consultation process.  Although the (criminal) sanctions for non-compliance do not take effect until 2 April 2016, our internal systems are already largely compliant with the restrictions imposed.  In short, when dealing with Shelston IP, clients can rest assured that we fully understand the situation and will have taken the necessary steps to minimise any risks to the parties involved.

The DTC Act 2015

The Defence Trade Controls Amendment Bill 2015, which amends the Defence Trade Controls Act 2012 (“the DTC Act”) was passed by Australian Federal Parliament on 18 March 2015.  The DTC Act regulates the overseas supply and publication of Defence and Strategic Goods List (DSGL) technologies and the brokering of DSGL goods and technology.

Criminalising non-compliance

As patent attorneys, the communication and publication of “technology” is a staple of our everyday work.  Often, such communications are sent offshore.  Other times, we communicate new technology in the form of patent specifications to our local clients, who in turn, send these documents overseas.  Depending on the nature of the “technology”, the DTC Act may criminalise such activities.

The offence provisions for supplying and publishing DSGL technology and for brokering DSGL goods and technology will not come into force until 2 April 2016 and as such, individuals and organisations are not required to seek permits for any otherwise-offending activities that will occur during this implementation period.  Notwithstanding, individuals and organisations have been encouraged to use the interim period to become familiar and compliant with the new restrictions.

Why have export controls in the first place?

The DTC Act is a little-known document having significant, wide-reaching consequences.  Australia’s export control system aims to stop goods and technology that can be used in military applications from being transferred to individuals, states or groups of proliferation concern.  As a member of various international export control regimes, Australia is part of a global effort to regulate the export of items of concern, many of which have potential terrorism or weapons of mass destruction applications.

Australia already regulates the physical export of certain military and dual‐use items under Regulation 13E of the Customs (Prohibited Exports) Regulations 1958.  However, the DTC Act is Australia’s means of closing any gaps that have appeared in the interim (as required by the Wassenaar Arrangement, to which Australia is a signatory).

Accordingly, the DTC Act regulates three main activities:

  • The intangible supply (transmission by non‐physical means, such as e-mail) of controlled technology from a person in Australia to a person outside of Australia;
  • Publishing controlled military technology; and
  • Brokering (akin to enabling another to communicate overseas) controlled military goods or technology.

How do I know if my technology is covered under the DTC Act?

The DTC Act applies to different stakeholders, depending on whether their activities involve military or “dual‐use” items listed in the DSGL.  The DSGL is a 368-page legislative instrument defining as “dual use” a broad range of otherwise fairly benign-sounding technologies.  As such, potentially one could assume a technology was exempt on the basis that it had no immediately or apparent primary military end use.  It is important to note that secondary or incidental military applications may suffice, hence the term “dual use” technologies.

International export control regimes are generally conscious of their impact upon people’s day-to-day activities, and so the controls are designed to only capture what is considered necessary.  For example, the DSGL lists computers that are specifically designed to operate below ‐45 °C or above 85 °C.  The DTC Act controls only apply to the technology which is necessary for the computer to operate at these extreme temperatures.  Technology that does not influence the computer’s ability to function at these temperatures is not controlled.  Using the above example, an Australian inventor who has created such technology for the primary purpose of, say, exploring the surface of Mars, would need to be acutely aware of the restrictions imposed by the DTC Act – as would his/her patent attorneys.

Non-compliance is a criminal offence

As mentioned, the offence provisions specified in the DTC Act will only come into force from 2 April 2016.  Although the sanctions for non-compliance are criminal in nature, this should be tempered with the knowledge that being hit with the full extent of the sanctions (10 years’ imprisonment) would require prosecutors to prove the requisite levels of intent, knowledge, recklessness and negligence.  The operation of the Criminal Code Act 1995 means that a person who mistakenly supplies, publishes or brokers controlled technology contrary to the DTC Act after diligently following institutional compliance processes would be unlikely to be prosecuted, much less to the full extent of the law.  The Code applies general principles of criminal responsibility to Commonwealth offences; in particular, the knowledge requirement is akin to having received fair warning.

If the goods or technology at issue are listed in the DSGL, a permit or approval may be required from DECO.  The qualifier “may” is dependent upon:

  • The activity being undertaken (“supply”, “brokering”, or “publication”); and
  • Whether it is a military or a “dual‐use” DSGL technology; and
  • Whether an exemption applies (such as “basic scientific research” or material that has been lawfully placed into the public domain).

As readers will appreciate, a simple “yes/no” answer as to whether a permit is likely to be required is necessarily dependent upon the unique circumstances that each scenario presents.

Patent-specific exemptions

As mentioned, a staple of our day-to-day activities as patent attorneys is the exchange of information relating to “technology”.  We communicate technology internally, domestically and internationally on a daily basis – and our clients do the same.  It is useful, therefore, to understand the activities that will be exempted under the DSGL regulations.

Firstly, the “pre-publication” exemption amounts to recognition, on DECO’s part, that they cannot regulate the publication of information.  As such, the communication of information contained in a patent document that will later be published (e.g., a draft convention application or a draft PCT application) appears to fit comfortably within the definition of “pre-publication”.  On the other hand, provisional patent applications do not appear to fit within this category – and as such, another exemption must be invoked.

To this end, the “patent application exemption” has recently been finalised by DECO.  It exempts activities “directly related to seeking a patent”:

This exemption applies to the supply of DSGL technology where it is done for the purpose of “seeking a patent” in Australia or overseas. “Seeking a patent” includes lodging a patent application and the supply of DSGL technology to a person or organisation (e.g., a Patent Office, patent attorney, research collaborator or a patent review panel) that is directly associated with the lodging (or potential lodging) of a patent application, or as a result of the patent examination process.

Supply for a purpose that is not directly related to seeking a patent will require a permit (unless other exemptions apply). This includes supply of DSGL technology to a research collaborator located overseas before a decision is made to seek a patent. Once a provisional patent application is filed, any supplies of DSGL technology to further develop an invention prior to preparing/submitting a complete patent application will require a permit. Supplies of DSGL technology to locate investors and determine overseas markets (including forwarding a recently-filed provisional application) will require a permit.

The process of publishing a patent (or an unsuccessful application) into the public domain is covered by this exemption. Until such time as that information exists in the public domain, it is still controlled and would require a permit to be supplied if it is not for the purpose of “seeking a patent” and no other exemptions applied.

As such, DECO would appear to have intentionally delineated between the acts of overseas communication for the purposes of preparing a patent application (exempt) and communication with a view to ancillary business activities such as seeking investor funding (not exempt).