IP Management:

IP Guide for SMEs

IP Guide for Small- and Medium Sized Enterprises (SMEs)

How can Intellectual Property Enhance the Export Opportunities of Your SME?


By World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO)

Exporting Your Patented Products

Using Brands and Designs to Market Goods and Services Abroad

International Exhaustion and Parallel Importation

Before embarking on an export operation, enterprises go through a series of crucial steps which range from identifying an appropriate export market and estimating demand, to finding channels of distribution, estimating costs and obtaining funds. Here we seek to outline the main reasons why you should also take intellectual property (IP) issues into account while planning your export strategy, and look into ways in which IP rights could enhance the competitiveness of your small or medium-sized enterprise (SME) in export markets.


As IP rights are ‘territorial’, i.e., are only available to you in the country or region in which they had been applied for and granted, to enjoy exclusive IP rights in foreign markets, you would have to seek and obtain protection abroad (except when it is available automatically without the need to comply with formalities, e.g., through an international treaty mechanism such as the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works, see “How can Your SME Benefit From Copyright Protection?”). The main reasons for protecting IP in export markets are outlined below:

  • IP rights, especially patents, may open up new export opportunities.

  • IP rights, especially trademarks and industrial designs, may help you to develop an advantageous market position in export markets.

  • IP rights enhance the opportunity of winning loyal clientele for your products and services in export markets.

  • Exporting Your Patented Products

    Patent (or utility model) protection abroad allows you to enjoy an important competitive advantage in your export markets. Companies that have adequately protected their inventions abroad have a range of options for exporting their innovative products that may not be available otherwise. These options include:

  • Producing the good domestically and exporting the protected good directly or through intermediaries, knowing that no other company will be able to legally produce, sell or exploit the same product in the selected market without your authorization (and that most patent laws no longer allow, in accordance with international obligations of the country, to issue non-voluntary licenses on the ground that the protected goods are not produced locally in the country of export destination).

  • Licensing the invention to a foreign firm that will manufacture the product locally, in exchange for a lump-sum payment and/or royalty fees (see “Licensing of Intellectual Property; a Vital Component of the Business Strategy of Your SME”).

  • Setting up joint ventures with other firms for manufacturing and/or commercialization of the product in the selected foreign markets.

  • Depending on your strategy your enterprise will earn additional revenues either through direct sales of the product or through fees and/or royalties from a licensee.

    Using Brands and Designs to Market Goods and Services Abroad


    The reasons for protecting trademarks and industrial designs in the domestic market fully apply to foreign markets too. Trademark registration, in particular, enables you to maximize product differentiation, advertising and marketing, thus enhancing recognition of your product or service in international markets and establishing a direct link with the foreign consumers. Depending on the nature of your service, a franchising agreement  with firms abroad, could be a useful alternative way to earn revenue from your trademark abroad as well.

    Companies that export unbranded products will face disadvantages such as:

  • Lower revenues as consumers demand lower prices for unbranded goods.

  • Lack of customer loyalty largely due to their inability to recognize the product and distinguish it from the products of competitors.

  • Difficulties in marketing and advertising products or services abroad in the absence of a suitable symbol or easy identifier that links your products or services with your SME, as marketing an unbranded product is inherently much more difficult.

  • With regard to industrial designs, protection in export markets will help not only to strengthen your overall marketing strategy but may also be important for customizing products for specific target markets, creating new niche markets for your company’s products, and strengthening your company’s image and reputation by linking it to a specific design.

    International Exhaustion and Parallel Importation

    While developing your export strategy, you should verify, preferably by consulting a qualified professional, whether a buyer could legally resell in another market IP-protected goods bought from, or with the consent of, your SME without having to seek your consent. This issue will only arise if you have already protected or would be protecting your IP rights in the domestic as well as in export market(s). Similarly, if your SME has bought goods that are protected by a patent, trademark, industrial design and/or copyright, then you should ascertain whether you would need the formal agreement of the IP owner(s) to sell those goods abroad, that is, in another market(s) (i.e. whether the IP rights are considered to be “exhausted"). You may be surprised that the answers to these questions are rather complex and may not only be different from one country to another but may also depend on the kind of IP rights involved.

    Before discussing these issues, we must define what is meant by “exhaustion” of IP rights. “Exhaustion” refers to one of the limits of intellectual property rights. Once a product protected by an IP right has been marketed either by your SME or by others with your consent, the IP rights of commercial exploitation over this given product can no longer be exercised by your SME, as they are “exhausted”. Sometimes this limitation is also called the “first sale doctrine”, as the rights of commercial exploitation for a given product end with the product’s first sale. Unless otherwise specified by law, subsequent acts of resale, rental, lending or other forms of commercial use by third parties can no longer be controlled or opposed by your SME. There is a fairly broad consensus that this applies at least within the context of the domestic market.


    There is less consensus as to what extent the sale of an IP protected product abroad can exhaust the IP rights over this product in the context of domestic law. The issue becomes relevant in cases of so-called “parallel importation”. Parallel importation refers to the import of goods outside the distribution channels contractually negotiated by the manufacturer. Because the manufacturer/IP owner has no contractual connection with a parallel importer, the imported goods are sometimes referred to as “grey market goods”, which in fact is somewhat misleading, as the goods as such are original, only the distribution channels are not controlled by the manufacturer/IP owner. Based upon the right of importation that an IP right confers upon the IP owner, the latter may try to oppose such importation in order to separate markets. If, however, marketing of the product abroad by the IP owner or with his consent leads to the exhaustion of the domestic IP right, also the right of importation is exhausted and can thus no longer be invoked against such parallel importation.

    The above principles have different implications depending on whether the country of importation, for reasons of law or policy, applies the concept of national, regional or international exhaustion. The concept of national exhaustion does not allow the IP owner to control the commercial exploitation of goods put on the domestic market by the IP owner or with his consent. However, the IP owner (or his authorized licensee) could still oppose the importation of original goods marketed abroad based on the right of importation. In the case of regional exhaustion, the first sale of the IP protected product by the IP owner or with his consent exhausts any IP rights over these given products not only domestically, but within the whole region, and parallel imports within the region can no longer be opposed based on the IP right. Where a country applies the concept of international exhaustion, the IP rights are exhausted once the product has been sold by the IP owner or with his consent in any part of the world.

    National IP offices, or IP agents/attorneys, should be able to inform you as to which provisions or case law applies in the relevant country for each type of IP right.