Patent law has come a long way since the Henry VI invented the world’s first ever patent for a new method of making stained glass windows for Eton College. These days a patent is granted by the government’s UK Intellectual Property Office (UK-IPO) to give an inventor exclusive rights to use their invention for up to 20 years. Patent rights prevent others copying or selling the invention without the permission of the inventor. Inventions that can be patented include products, processes and software. Patents are assets like any other piece of property and may be sold, mortgaged, used as collateral or licensed.
Patents are complex and costly, but give the best protection against copyists. Do you remember when vacuum cleaner manufacturer Hoover was forced to pay £4 million damages to Dyson after infringing patent protection?
A patent can last for up to 20 years and is enforceable by law. This right to stop competition exists only in the country for which a patent has been granted. Applicants get protection and patents encourage investment and skills in new technologies, processes and products.
Do you really need patent protection?
An invention will only qualify for a patent if it really is new, is clearly an ‘inventive step’, and can be feasibly manufactured and used in industry. Patents are not granted for a discovery, a scientific theory or mathematical method, a literary, dramatic or artistic work, a scheme or method for performing a mental act, playing a game or doing business, the presentation of information or computer programmes.
If you are thinking of applying for a patent you should not publicly disclose the invention before you file the application because this could be counted as prior publication of your invention. Any type of disclosure (whether by word of mouth, demonstration, advertisement or article in a journal) could prevent the applicant from getting a patent. Even if, after being granted a patent, it is discovered that you did not keep your invention confidential prior to applying, the patent can be withdrawn. So, a first major step is finding a professional patent agent – look up in Yellow Pages and shop around for quotes.
Make any disclosure under strict confidence. Conversations with patent agents, solicitors or the UK-IPO staff are confidential, so these do not count as revealing your invention early. An agent will probably advise an initial application which is simpler and cheaper than a full application. UK-IPO will check if an invention has already been patented or is simply a progression of an existing product/process. This information saves time and resources otherwise spent ‘reinventing the wheel’. The UK-IPO will also give an impartial opinion on issues concerning patent validity or infringement.
Some inventors apply for a patent during the research stages while their idea is new. This makes sure that they are the first to patent the invention should any other unknown parties be producing the same invention, but could also require re-application (and costs) if significant changes are needed. At the beginning of a project it is important to establish who owns the intellectual property rights relating to the invention. The intellectual property rights may include patent rights, design rights and copyright. In general, these rights belong to the creator of the intellectual property unless there is a contractual relationship between the creators and a third party whereby the rights transfer to a third party. For example, if the creator is an employee, then the intellectual property rights will normally belong to the employer. If a company is commissioned to develop an idea through to a commercial product, then ownership of the intellectual property rights will be governed by the contractual relationship between the two companies.
Patents last up to 20 years from registration. After four years, the inventor must renew registration every year until the 20 year limit. Costs vary. Failure to pay renewal fees result in the patent lapsing. After 20 years the patent expires and the invention passes into the public domain.
At present, patent protection is provided on a country by country basis, so it is necessary to have a patent in each country where protection is required. Most countries are part to an International Convention which enables filing of foreign patent applications to be deferred up to one year from the date of filing the first patent application. This helps defer costs.
How do I search patents?
Go onto the UK-IPO website. You can pay to have a search done or you can use the free patent search service at the site.
Esp@cenet, pronounced espacenet, is a free patent search service developed by the European Patent Office (EPO). It provides access to UK patents database and those of over 20 European patent offices, the EPO and the World Intellectual Property Office.
To get the most out of esp@cenet, make sure you search the most appropriate database for what you are looking for.
Esp@cenet defaults to the worldwide database, which contains more than 60 million patents from around the world. However, you can choose a more specific database to focus your search on patents covering a particular country, for example GB – esp@cenet for patents covering the United Kingdom.
The EPO help system helps you to choose the most appropriate database and use the service. Many European country patent offices provide additional information about the content and search facilities of their own databases.
Britain has the longest continuous patent tradition in the world and as such the law is detailed and complex. Patent law has shifted a long way since the fifteenth century but the basic principles of giving inventors exclusive rights remain the same. If you are considering registering a patent it is strongly advisable to obtain professional advice from a qualified and recommended patent specialist.