An introduction to patents

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In this continuing series of blogs on IP, this blog focusses on the concept of patents.

What is a Patent?

A Patent is a form of intellectual property which gives you exclusive rights over a new or enhanced invention. This can be a product or a process and broadly speaking, protection can last up to 20 years.

Patents are territorial rights, so you have to register for a patent in the countries in which you want protection.

Criteria for obtaining a patent

To obtain a patent, specific conditions must be fulfilled. The proposed invention must be:

  • new;
  • inventive – so not obvious
  • capable of being used in the relevant industry
  • the owner must be able to prove title to ownership of the invention

There are certain exceptions to a product or process being patented. These are generally: a scientific theory or mathematical method; a literary, dramatic, musical or artistic work (usually protected by copyright); a scheme or method of playing a game or doing business; a computer program; and the presentation of information.

You must apply for a patent before any detail has been released in to the public domain, or else you could lose the right to registration. This is a common problem and is often an issue for businesses who appear in the popular television show, Dragon’s Den.

Patent protection exists (or used to exist) in some familiar products such as Dyson vacuum cleaners, the iphone and post-it notes, and some not so familiar products such as rubber horseshoes (for better shock absorption), bottle sealing devices, and so on.

Why register a patent?

Registering a patent is commonly known to be a lengthy and costly process; the initial application normally takes four years before final approval and part of this process involves publishing details of your invention. Five years after your filing date you will need to renew your patent; after this it will need to be renewed each year with the annual renewal cost increasing in each year. This should be weighed up against the astonishing fact that only around 3% of patents registered ever make any money!

Once a patent is registered, it provides a guarantee of exclusivity, which allows you to bring infringement action against any competitors who attempt to financially gain from your invention.Providing the renewal fees are paid, patent protection can stay in place up to 20 years and it is only once the patent expires, that competitors may legally produce a similar product using your technology.

As with other forms of intellectual property, you can licence or sell patents to third parties. They can also help attract investment into a business due to their exclusive nature.

Once a patent is filed, part of the process involves the application details becoming public. Unfortunately, that may give competitors the information they need to copy your product. Therefore, in the early stages of any invention, it is important to decide how you will protect your new idea, by weighing up whether it is worth patenting the product or process.

Where a business decides that it is not worth patenting its invention, or if it doesn’t meet the criteria, it may want to consider other forms of intellectual property protection. For example, it could better spend its money on establishing and building a brand around a product instead, perhaps including registering a trade mark.

Another alternative to registration is to retain the formulation of the product or process as a trade secret. This simply means maintaining the confidentiality of the key information, and ensuring that it remains secret, or known only to a select few. Trade secrets can include formulas, methodologies, confidential customer lists, business methods, etc. The coca cola recipe is one of the most infamous examples often cited when discussing trade secrets, although other examples include the composition of WD40, skincare and cosmetic formulations, the KFC recipe and so on.

Patent Box

A tax relief called the Patent Box is available to qualifying companies, which provides for a lower rate of corporation tax. This regime was introduced to stimulate activity associated with the development, manufacture and exploitation of patents in the UK.

Should you need assistance with any patent issues, then please contact Rina Sond.